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24 January 2011 @ 09:12 am
"The Giver" by Lois Lowry  
This is a book (3rd this year) which has been vaguely on my radar for ages - it's won awards and I've seen mentions of it here & there; the edition I got out of the library was a Collins Modern Classic edition, and I guess that's what it is. It's a children's book, which is obvious in the simplicity of the story (not in a bad way, tho I also felt some of it was flawed). We follow the point of view of Jonas, a boy growing up in a dystopia that he believes to be a utopia. He's about 12 years old, and this is the point where the Community starts to specialise children's education - there is a ceremony where they are assigned to professions, and Jonas is assigned as the Receiver of memories. There is only one of these at a time (except the point where the new one is trained), and it entails learning the truth about the Community and the price it has paid for its "utopian" existance. The title of the book is the name that Jonas and the old Receiver use to refer to the old Receiver - now that Jonas is Receiving the memories the old man is the Giver. Unlike the Le Guin story ("The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas") the Receiver is not part of the price itself, instead their role is to provide the Community with the ability to draw on the lessons learnt from the memories of non-Community life. A reservoir of knowledge the Community hopes isn't needed, but the original founders have clearly realised will be sometimes necessary.

I really liked the way the dystopia was done - Jonas thought it was great, that was very clear and everything was presented as his worldview. Yet as the reader you were aware of the disturbing undercurrents, particularly about people being "released". I figured out long before it was made clear what this was, and I imagine everyone (even the target audience of children) does. Which made it creepy beyond belief seeing Jonas's innocent and naive perspective. The constant surveilance and the strong emphasis on conformity & crushing of differences also came across very effectively and disturbingly.

The book is kinda science fiction (ie, we're in the future, and it comes across as derived from our world) but really I think it's fantasy, it's not an actual extrapolation of our world and the tech/concepts aren't necessarily plausible. In particular the memories thing is mystical rather than scientific. But I was very much willing to go with that for the sake of the story and the questions it asked. Is this a price worth paying (generically) for no war, no hunger, no conflict? Would you be willing to be the one who knew this was the price that had been paid?

This was a good book, and I enjoyed reading it, but the last third (or so) of the book felt flawed to me. SPOILERS: Jonas and the Giver decide that things must change, after Jonas learns what "release" really means. And then they concoct some plan where Jonas will escape but that will somehow be the same to the community as if he'd died (this seemed inconsistent to me with how I thought the memory thing had been established), and then the Giver will somehow help the Community get over the return of the memories. Except the way the Giver was helping Jonas only seemed to me to be by talking to him etc. And I had the impression the Community was too large for him to seriously spend a significant time talking to each member. So I was left unsure both of how the plan was meant to start or play out. Maybe I missed something? I also wasn't clear why they thought this would change things for the better - yes, I wouldn't want to live in the world of the Community, this was a dystopia no doubt about it, but not all change is necessarily good - I could imagine worse places than the Community to live in. This was also the only bit where I felt the children's book nature of it let it down - I think I would've liked a more adult take on the same story, this felt a bit like it took a sudden turn for the optimistic (with the plan, and I know from the internet that in one of the sequels it is confirmed that Jonas lives). And I think I would've prefered the creepy, disturbing and twisted vibe to continue through to the end. END SPOILERS

My overall feeling then is that this was a good book that was let down a bit by the ending, which made it "good for a children's story" (if you see what I mean). Glad I got round to reading it.
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Calico Reactioncalico_reaction on January 24th, 2011 10:48 pm (UTC)
Oooh, there's a Le Guin short story that deals with a similar concept? Do you know where I can find it (which collection it's in)?

So, here's my question: did they or did they not die at the end?

It's interesting that you wish for an adult perspective. I think this can only work when the narrator or POV focus is YOUNG enough to still be naive in our own world, let alone theirs. I'm not sure I could follow an adult through this Community, unless it was the Giver himself, you know?
Margaretpling on January 25th, 2011 10:04 am (UTC)
It's been a very long while since I read the Le Guin story, and I don't seem to own it so I must've got it out of the library somewhere. However, wikipedia pointed me to this page: http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?58836 which seems to have a list of anthologies that the story is in. (The wikipedia page for the story has a plot summary, so I've not linked you to it as I dunno if you want to avoid spoilers or not).

As to whether they died ... I see what you meant about how ambiguous it was & I quite agree that it would be better left ambiguous than resolved. The beginning of the book would've made me think he died, but the tone of the last third of it made me think it more likely that he was supposed to live (too grim otherwise). Like you, I think I'd rather leave the story there, not read any more of them - with his survival in doubt and rather implausible.

I didn't mean an adult perspective as in an adult protagonist - I think Jonas was perfect as the protagonist - but more that the tone of the last third was more of a children's book. Like how the Giver turns out to be on Jonas's side and they plan to turn the Community upside down - it's sort of heading for the optimistic ending, and it felt to me like that was done because of the age of the intended audience. I felt like the tone of the beginning of the story made it more likely that the Giver had decided that the outcome (Community life, the lack of hardship) was worth the price of release and of lack of individuality. Rather than having suffered all his life with how to change things (until Jonas came along & gave him the key to the puzzle - said key I'm still not convinced by or sure of). I'm not sure where that story would've gone, where the Giver's reaction was "yes, it's dreadful but it's worth it". But it would've been a less optimistic one (even with the ambiguity of Jonas's survival or death this book ends with the Community being changed & I felt the implication was it would be for the better).
Calico Reactioncalico_reaction on January 26th, 2011 02:31 am (UTC)
Oh, good! Looks like I have that anthology, so I'll keep an eye out. :) Thanks!