Never Let Me Go
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2005
Knopf / Random House
US First Edition Hardcover
Publication Date: 04-11-2005
288 Pages; $24
Date Reviewed: 04-24-05
Faber & Faber
UK Hardcover First Edition
Publication Date: 03-03-2005
Pages; Price: 263; £15.99
In hindsight, in memory, we can rebuild the world with a delicate beauty that belies what is beneath. From the fragile visions of our youth, from the memories of sunny days and small victories, comes an understanding of ourselves that escapes reality, that evades what was in favor of what we wished it to be. Kazuo Ishiguro connects with his characters at such an intimate level, builds their psyches with such transparency that we experience their worlds, their lives without question. As do they. As do we all.
But there are always questions. No matter how convincingly we lie to ourselves, no matter how perfectly constructed our inner histories may be, no matter how well we ourselves have been deceived by those around us, those questions, and the answers they imply wait beneath, behind, beside the stories we've told. Ishiguro's 'Never Let Me Go' has the quiet power of an unseen holocaust, the harrowing horror of an imagined apocalypse as seen in the pastel paintings of children who never knew what happened but were nonetheless there. The gentle shades, the careful curves, the carefree lines somehow converge on a darkness that threatens to overwhelm. If only we could forget. If only we hadn't forgotten. Our world would be no different. But our understanding of that world would not keep us awake at night.
As 'Never Let Me Go' begins, Kathy, at the age of 31 surprisingly still a "carer", finds herself in the position of caring for Ruth and Tommy, her best friends back when they were all students at Hailsham. Ruth and Tommy are now both "donors". Readers know from the get-go that these words are euphemisms, but Kathy effortlessly slides past them and into her story of growing up at Hailsham. It's not an unusual story, at least at first. Hailsham seems to be a sort of idyll of the English boarding school. The students mingle together in the universal fashion of children growing up. Large friendships, small jealousies, and the everyday tragedies of children growing into awkward adolescence then eventually into adulthood loom large here. Ruth, Kathy and Tommy become friends and eventually more than friends. They grow together and then apart. But euphemisms and cues quickly lead the reader to understand that this is no school, as we know schools and these are not students, as we know students. There's something very wrong here, but amidst the diaphanous veils of Kathy's recollections it's all too easy for the reader and for Kathy to shuffle all the bad stuff aside while we focus on the characters we come to care so much about.
Restraint is the order of the day at every turn in the newest novel from the author of 'The Remains of the Day' and 'When We Were Orphans'. By focusing on the minutia of the characters' lives and feelings, Ishiguro gives the world behind those lives and feelings reality through its relationship to the characters and their feelings. It's a sly way for this writer to enter the world of science fiction literature. Readers who frequent the genre will find Ishiguro's approach bracing and refreshing, reminiscent of the best examples of what was once known as social science fiction. Theodore Sturgeon once worked and Ursula K. Le Guin still works in this vein. 'Never Let Me Go' is a gripping novel not only by virtue of the veracity of its characters but also due to the level of deception the narrator manages to put between herself and her world. Kathy is the kind of prim woman who knows about the "horror movie stuff" involved in living in the real world. But she's focused on the here and now, on the what-we-can-do as opposed to the what-has-been-done.
Ishiguro's focus on the characters may at first seem like the usual focus of literary authors. His prose is gorgeous and spare, his touch light and unassuming. 'Never Let Me Go' is never less than delightful to read. But the focus on the small aspects of characters serves a revelatory point in the plot. All that gorgeous prose builds up a wave of understanding that breaks over the reader in a precisely timed penultimate scene. The careful characterization serves to set up a classic science-fictional understanding that is brilliantly realized and quite timely. The implications of Ishiguro's novel spread out with a seismic power.
In 'Never Let Me Go', Kazuo Ishiguro reveals to the readers the souls of Kathy H. and her friends, Ruth and Tommy. With meticulous language he creates an aura of mystery. You'll be breathlessly turning the pages to find out how much Kathy is willing to tell herself about her own life, her own fate. These people love one another and themselves for the same reasons the reader does. This much is perfectly clear. We want the small miracles to work out, in their lives and ours. Of course, readers will also see their own souls in the mirror that Ishiguro creates for Kathy. And like Kathy, in the depths of that mirror, we'll be able to see our own darknesses, our own deceptions, our own completions. No less real. No easier to live with.