GoodReads Review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go”

Never Let Me GoNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

By Your Salonniere

Kathy H has a story to tell, a tale of a childhood that never ended. She, her sister-friend Ruth, and her brother-lover Tommy each live a life so innocent and full of helpless naivete that their stories are supposed to be blood-chilling. Theirs is a dream most of us have as a passing fancy. They never have to worry about growing old, paying the mortgage, or keeping car insurance. They’ll never be disappointed in their children or find themselves in a loveless marriage. In this aspect their lives seem ideal, yet the price they pay for their eternal youth is a fact each soon has to face at one point or another: they, essentially, are already dead. None of them nor any of their classmates were ever really born to this world. They can never really know what it means to be human in all its complicated and wrinkled mess.

The premise of Never Let Me Go is a badly kept secret, which won’t be spoiled here, not if it can be helped. Yet, everyone seems to know the gist of this plot, and what pulls readers through is how these characters react to their fates, how they fill their days in the meantime, and, not to mention, what is the reasoning behind the improbable science of such a sinister and calculated society. Ishiguro’s writing is sparse and painfully childlike, so that Kathy’s story-telling is of an adolescent girl who rambles and backtracks in a stifled and awkward manner. Unfortunately this voice quickly loses charm because she doesn’t progress. This may be the point of our author, stressing the idea that these kids are essentially trapped, but that means we’re trapped right there with them, and the story suffers in this stylistic rut.

The more interesting aspects of the book get buried under the dead weight of a lifeless voice. Ishiguro could have pushed the idea of hyper-pubescence, of youth whose only known and experienced universe is the school they attended, the renowned and mysterious Hailsham that provided a surrogate family for our main characters. The tenuous relationship among these three schoolkids, Ruth, Kathy, and Tommy, is almost intriguing enough to hold our attention, yet these characters act and react to one another in such predictable ways. Ruth doesn’t let anyone down at playing the selfish popular kid in class. Kathy is frustratingly the insider-outsider, a stereotypical participant observer. And Tommy, we don’t know whether to hit him over the head or walk away with the rest of his classmates and leave him to his own devices. He shows glimpses of ingenuity; each of them do, but as their report cards might have read, none of them live up to their full potential. Once these characters are established to the reader any transformation seems glacial in movement. Global warming has progressed faster than these three.

We’re all aware of survival-of-the-fittest dynamics in school. Hailsham is certainly no different. The kids “grew up” here, if you can call it growing up, and Hailsham is the only family they will ever have, the only world they’ll ever know. Any usual drama that a kid faces in class such as bullying, teasing, and the making and breaking of friendships are exponentially significant for these characters. Ishiguro has taken the grade school and high school experience and ripped them a part from the rest of society, making adolescence a separate entity in and of itself, existing in a virtual vacuum, a stand-alone laboratory where we as readers can examine the complicated microcosm of juvenescence in study and at play. Unfortunately, we’re all too familiar with these themes and tropes, which make up the bulk of too many novels, TV shows, and movies. Disappointingly, Ishiguro doesn’t have much to add to the coming-of-age story, nor does he delve deep enough into the ethical issues that the premise raises. We hunger just as much as Ruth, Kathy, and Tommy, to be something bigger, part of something grander than what our peers and teachers presume for us, and, unfortunately, we’re left stunted by the limited imaginations of our authorities.

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  1. Rashaan, I read Never Let Me Go a little after it came out and remember being very compelled. I’m a sci-fi fan. Some of my favorite books are near-future dystopian fictions like 1984, Brave New Word, The Handmaid’s Tale. So, when some pointedly literary, near-future dystopian sci-fi comes out, I’m an instant fan. But I don’t think it was just my bias that compelled me. Unfortunately, to talk about the real guts of the book, it’s pretty difficult not to ruin the twist for others, but I’ll try.

    On the level of science fiction, Ishiguro tackled a very real moral dilemma that we’ll be facing in the not too distant future. He shows the problem of treating Kathy and her kind with compassion, allowing them a life, the illusion of autonomy, a sense of individuality, relationships, and the chance to develop into something more. Kathy’s was a living, working community… of sorts. But is it a solution?

    The medical benefits of producing a population like this are pretty tempting. But looking at a life from within the mind and spirit of one of them makes it heart-rending. Particularly given the great pride that Kathy takes in her profession. Can we induce life-long comas instead? Is it a better idea to keep them from being conscious at all or would some equally nightmarish reality emerge—a life lived entirely in a dream-state?

    On the sociological level, the economic self-sufficiency of Kathy’s community, their caretaking of one another, in addition to their utter lack of “class” consciousness, made me reflect on Kathy and her kind as working class folks in our world, people upon whom the upper classes prey. Because they aren’t educated, because it’s always been this way in their communities and families, because their ideologies don’t allow them to see their dire straights, they can’t see how or even why to break free.

    Like some of the best dystopian sci-fi out there, Never Let Me Go demonstrated the power that ideology has, how an entire class, or classes, of people can be made to accept, even take pride in, circumstances that those with wider viewpoints would find unlivable. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of this book was that it was told from the point of view of someone who accepts what, for us, are unlivable circumstances.

    With 1984, Brave New World, and The Handmaid’s Tale, the protagonists are rebels questioning their world. Kathy’s evenness, her monotone and, like you said, “lifeless” voice, for me, made the tension of her world all the more palpable, all the more urgent. From my point of view, this was a very original narrative in which it’s not the protagonist who goes through crisis, realization and growth, but the reader.

  2. Roz,

    I only wish I could have experienced that transformation you write of, which the reader is supposed to undergo with Kathy’s story. I could definitely intuit hints of those themes, but they weren’t on the page for me, and I felt, too often, that I had to fill in so many of those blanks, which could have been beautifully stitched together with more eloquence from Kathy as narrator. That reminds me of Madame’s speech at the end. I cringe to think and write this, but her dialogue reminded me too much of a Scooby Doo episode when the “antagonist” explains the “grand” scheme. I hate to equate the conclusion this way, but that’s what immediately came to mind when I read it. I’m not sure why Ishiguro choose to wrap up his story in such an awkward and conventional manner, s-p-e-l-l-i-n-g o-u-t the plot for the reader. It just seemed poorly executed. Cormac McCarthy combines beautiful poetry with his sci-fi dystopic narrative in “The Road,” and I would have loved to see the same care in the telling of this story as well.

    Your comments should definitely be posted as a GoodReads Review, if they haven’t been already. Thanks, as always, for bringing new insight and for stopping by the salon!

  3. Flaws in books sometimes get fuzzy as time passes. Maybe in time, you’ll become a fan! Ha! I’m sure if I read it again I would find what you see, too. I don’t even remember Madame’s speech! I haven’t read The Road, but I did see the film. Gabe and I were so glad to be alive after seeing it. We felt like our lives were PARADISE.

  4. I can’t wait to see “Never Let Me Go” in the theatre, which is really why I read the book. I love Carey Mulligan and, (I’m totally blushing) I *heart* Ms. Keira Knightley. I couldn’t bring myself to see “The Road” after reading it. Imagining that world was too much.

    Have you ever read Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca”? I should be starting that one any day now and am eager with anticipation.

  5. What?? I didn’t even know there was a movie in the works! Yes! And I, too, have a crush on Keira (and Scarlett Johansson). I just saw C. Mulligan in An Education. She was pretty fantastic—as was the film.

    I haven’t read “Rebecca,” no. As always, I look forward to your review!

  6. Loved, loved, loved Mulligan in “An Education.” She is wicked brilliant, and fantastic in the Masterpiece Theater movie with Daniel Radcliffe about Rudyard Kipling and his son, “This Boy’s Tale” or something like that. I’ve been meaning to ask, what are you reading in your book club? Will be sending an email soon. Thanks again for the inspiring tete-a-tete!

  7. Ooo. I will have to check her out in the Rudyard Kipling movie.

    We’re reading Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. Wish you and Phil were with us.

    A big thanks back atcha’ for the same!

  8. We have that book as a gift. I think I know who picked that title out or at least who seconded the suggestion 🙂

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