[Book] Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro [2005]

Title: Never Let Me Go

Author: Kazuo Ishiguro

Genre: Dystopian science fiction

Rating: 8.0/10

Summary: In one of the most memorable novels of recent years, Kazuo Ishiguro imagines the lives of a group of students growing up in a darkly skewered version of contemporary England. Narrated by Kathy, now 31, Never Let Me Go hauntingly 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.

I spent a lot of time in writing this post thinking about what it is that differentiate science fiction and fantasy from literary fiction. Animal Farm could be fantasy, Brave New World and 1984 could be science-fiction. Some light reading on the subject suggests that it is the subject matter and focus of the novels rather than their setting that distinguishes them. For example, genre fiction tends to focus on world-building and exploring the setting while literary fiction tends to see those things as a means to an end, with characters and themes being more important. I’m not sure I buy that distinction but then again, I’m not convinced that there is a distinction between genre and literary fiction in the first place. Good writing will always be good writing and good stories will always be good stories though the choice of medium through which they are told makes a big difference.

I bring all this up because while I am not interested in trying to force Never Let Me Go into any particular category, it is nonetheless interesting to note it has several elements of literary fiction – social commentary and a deeply introspective character-centric narrative style – while also borrowing heavily from softer science fiction. That setting, a dystopian but not altogether unrecognisable Britain, is not something that the reader engages with directly but it is a critical element of the story. The story simply does not work as well without the setting but at no point does the setting become the focus of the story.

The first thing that struck me about Never Let Me Go was the elegance of the language. Language is one of the things that you don’t appreciate until its gone; I recently picked up Infinite Jest and while I’m still fairly early on in the book, I wouldn’t call it elegantly written. The sentences in Infinite Jest are simple enough to understand, don’t get me wrong, but they lack the concise power you find in Never Let Me Go. It is vivid without being overly descriptive; Ishiguro seems to have realised that it doesn’t matter if the reader’s vision of the classroom matches his own, as long as both reader and author are indeed picturing the same type of classroom – well-equipped without being excessive. The same applies for things like character descriptions and other locations – Ishiguro has the experienced author’s understanding of just how powerful the reader’s imagination is in creating a world even when there isn’t a great deal of information provided.

The deficiencies in his style of writing – the slow, methodical pace, the limited information on what is happening in a scene at any point – never really become a problem for the reader because the story is told in a series of non-chronological recollections. The nature of recollections is foggy and vague with only certain key details captured and that’s something that Ishiguro plays with masterfully. These recollections come with a sweet poignancy as we see the follies and insecurities of youth laid bare by the experiences of age. Children’s antics and attempts at subtly hiding their jealousies are easy enough to spot when seen through the adult narrators eyes, but despite that do not lose their charm. Ineffective though their measures maybe, in exposing their attempts to mislead or divert attention, we see their vulnerabilities and come to care for them. The three main characters, especially, come alive and feel like real people; given that society in the novel’s context does not see them quite the same way makes the reader all the more sympathetic to their cause.

Speaking of the novel’s society, the more I thought about it, the more mixed my feelings about the settings became. The setting is a silent partner in the story until the middle section of the novel, after which it becomes ever more important to the story’s conclusion. The first half of Never Let Me Go reads like any other story set in post WW2 Britain –  it has all the trappings of a quaint countryside private school, with its elite status and sheltered life – but the cruel reality of the setting interrupts that dream every so often, and when it does, it’s a splash of cold water into the reader’s face. It is a reminder that this story will demand great, painful sacrifices of its characters. I think that is why I grew to resent the novel’s setting – it forced me to confront the harsh reality that the characters lived in, interrupting the wistful pleasantries of their otherwise simple lives. In the end, the setting forced me to part with characters and relationships that I was emotionally invested in and I resented it for that.

Of course, my reaction was exactly what Ishiguro was going for. There is a criticism of society embedded throughout Never Let Me Go – a critique of mankind’s primal search for longevity and how we consume and discard thoughtlessly. As is the case with all good fiction, the society depicted is not as far removed from our own as we would want to believe. Cloning yourself to harvest your own parts is troubling enough but seeing it all from the clone’s perspective makes it worse. Yet, in its own way, by showing this darker side of human nature, the novel is also able to shine a light on some of our better characteristics. The novel doesn’t quite have a happy ending but it is able to make you appreciate that even in the worst of times, the same spark of humanity that compels some of us to indifferent cruelty, drives others among us to acts of compassion and sacrifice. Both types of sparks are inherent to us as a species – as long as we survive, they will never be truly extinguished

Conclusion:  I would recommend Never Let Me Go to anyone who is looking for a quick but powerful read, with interesting themes and enjoys poignant, romantic nostalgia. It is not a light book by any means, but it is a stirring one.

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