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The Morning News and Powells Present
2006 Tournament of Books
MARCH 23, 2006
I will begin by saying I was wary from the outset of pitting these two books against each other. I read Never Let Me Go before it was released last year and knew it was one of the best books I had read in close to a decade. To my mind, Ishiguro is flawless, and I felt sorry for any book that I had to judge next to it. Never Let Me Go is a devastating story told in immaculate prose. Ishiguro’s subtle and refined style perfectly suits an overwhelming, profound subject matter and leaves you pondering the idea of what it means to be human.

It is a matter of taste, of course, and Ishiguro is definitely to my taste. His prose style is elegant, Japanese minimalism combined with that stoic and repressed voice that you find in E.M. Forster and Evelyn Waugh, yet imbued with modernist elements all of his own. The story of Never Let Me Go is that of Kathy, a “carer” in her early 30s. “This was all a long time ago so I might have some of it wrong,” Kath disclaims at the start of the second chapter, and thus commences a series of flashbacks about her life growing up at Halisham (which appears to be an exclusive boarding school), and her relationship with two close friends, Tommy and Ruth. The purpose of Halisham, and the children under its care, becomes ominously clearer as Kath peels away the layers of her story like that of an onion skin. The emotional impact of this book cannot be overstated. It is tremendous.

And so it is with hesitation I must compare this tremendous work with Stephanie Doyon’s The Greatest Man in Cedar Hole, which I am sure has found loving readers, albeit readers with a different taste than mine. That said, I wasn’t quite prepared for how much The Greatest Man in Cedar Hole would irritate me. The setting is a small town and the characters are a disparate mix (though admittedly, to my mind, thoroughly unlikable for the most part) whom we follow over a period of roughly 30 years. Characters come and go, relationships between them grow or break apart, and yet I felt their emotional motivations were either cartoonishly simplistic or simply left unexplained.

Doyon’s voice is enthusiastic and quirky—I’m reminded of that quirkiness that makes John Irving’s books so popular—and yet her attention to detail is markedly erratic. Some of her characters had elaborate back stories yet were given only a minor role, while other characters were largely undeveloped yet went on to play rather significant roles (at least one I understood as supposedly being significant, although that is hard to be sure of with so many characters to keep track of). The storyline is erratic, also, and I found myself having to reread parts to ascertain what was going on. I think a better editor might have rid it of some of its inconsistencies, but these—admittedly minor—jolts would interrupt the flow of narrative for me, as did the huge leaps in time. The story suddenly jumps 10 years or so, and yet this leap is accompanied with a flashback, making for a really bumpy journey for the reader.

But to reiterate, these two books probably should not be compared. I feel bad for criticizing Doyon’s work, for it is spirited. What it isn’t, is art. And Ishiguro is an artist of the highest caliber.

The Peanut Gallery
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