Wednesday 19 January 2011

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

Narrated by Kathy, now thirty-one, Never Let Me Go dramatises her attempts to come to terms with her childhood at the seemingly idyllic Hailsham School and with the fate that has always awaited her and her closest friends in the wider world. A story of love, friendship and memory, Never Let Me Go is charged throughout with a sense of the fragility of life.
From the cover of the book, I had a vague idea that it would be a literary, people- and relationship-based novel - which it is - maybe like Atonement. Which it is not. I suspect my mind remembered the last book I read with a picture of Keira Knightley on the front cover. I also expected some kind of hint at ghostly goings-on, because the picture of Knightley at the top made me think of Cathy Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights.

What I actually got was something very different - and if you want to read this book open-mindedly, I suggest you don't read past this paragraph - and whatever you do, avoid watching the movie trailers. I'm avoiding plot spoilers but will be making reference to genre and writing style. The short version of the review is: "This book is great, read that instead of the blog."

Potential spoilers below

The first thing Ishiguro tells us is that the setting is "England, late 1990s," and we meet our narrator, Kathy, who tells us a little about her position working as a carer, before sending us back in time to her childhood at Hailsham school. From the very beginning, subtle uses of language alert us to the suspicion that this is not quite the world as we know it. "Carer" doesn't seem to mean quite what we expect it to, and when Kathy describes her school life, the adults are described not as "teachers" but "guardians." A seemingly insignificant choice of word, that could just be a school breaking the trends, but nothing in Never Let Me Go is accidental. Similarly, the emphasis on what is considered important or not is ever so slightly off-kilter, such as the urgency for Hailsham students to be "creative," and the worry when one seems to have no artistic talents. Clearly Hailsham is preparing its students for something - but what?

When the "big reveal" comes, to be honest it's not much of a shock. Superficially it might seem that Ishiguro has been clumsy, leaving too many clues in the text so that that the plot twist isn't as dramatic as it should be. I realised that this, too, is no accident. Miss Lucy, the guardian who blurts out exactly what the students' future holds, tells them that they've been "told and not told," and Tommy expands on this, hypothesising that "the guardians had [...] timed very carefully and deliberately everything they told us, so that we were always just too young to understand the latest piece of information. But of course we'd take it in at some level, so that before long all this stuff was there in our heads without us ever having examined it properly." Like the students, when I read this book there was no one moment of realisation. When Miss Lucy made her outburst, I just realised that I'd known all along. A very, very clever piece of writing.

Alongside the "knowing all along," was a sort of anaesthetising of the horror. The narration is simple, unflowery, and very matter-of-fact. Where apparently insignificant events are elevated to importance, the destiny of Kathy, Ruth, Tommy and other students should be shocking and horrific, but the characters' unquestioning acceptance that this is just the way the world is, makes for a chillingly calm read. Never Let Me Go had a slow-burning effect on me, its impact increasing after I'd finished reading and carried on thinking about it. I was very glad not to have seen the film trailer before reading the book as it gives far too much away and would have spoiled the book, not only in plot details but in its genre and literary qualities.

I'm looking forward to seeing the film in February and would be interested in reading more of Ishiguro's work.


  1. We must have been reading it at the same time! I haven't seen the movie yet either... but hope to soon.

  2. I love this book. I just think it's amazing! Glad you liked it too.

    I've seen the movie. It's good, but didn't have as powerful an effect as the book had on me.

  3. What a great post, it's so indepth and gives a real insight into just what you thought, thanks for sharing.

  4. I had the same reading experience you had. Knowing nothing makes the sort of reveal so good. I agree with you about Ishiguro's careful writing - he planned every word. Beautiful. Have you read Remains of the Day?

  5. I didn't read past your admonition because I want to read this at some point because I loved Remains of the Day. Thanks for the warning about spoilers, and for indicating its a must read :)

  6. I have not read the book but did enjoy the movie. It was sad though! I bet you would like Neal Shusterman's Unwind.


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