Book Review: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go is the second novel that I’ve read by acclaimed author Kazuo Isghiguro, and I absolutely see from where the acclaim comes. This novel depicts the tragic callousness of society, a deep exploration of human nature, and the power of friendship and memory with a calm passion and command of language.

Because the story depends a lot on some revelations, I will not  go into much detail until the end.

At age 31, Kathy recounts her time at Hailsham, a sort of boarding school where she grew up. Nothing is said of her parents–or the parents of anyone else in the school–and there is almost nothing but speculation regarding the outside world. They spend their time learning about the world outside, of history, of literature, and most of all art. Art is emphasized above all things by the Hailsham guardians.

Kathy has a small group of friends at Hailsham, mainly Ruth and Tommy. Their relationships are tumultuous to say the least, and Kathy’s narration really allows us to witness their growth, both toward each other and apart. Each moves toward an inevitable point. The novel raises many questions: who are the guardians? Why are the students at Hailsham? Why is art so important?

With linguistic aplomb, Ishiguro transports us into a world not unlike our own, but with terrifying differences that force introspection.

Spoilers below.

Kathy and the other students at Hailsham are clones, grown for the express purpose of harvesting human tissue for donations. Not much is known about the details of how this came about, but the insidious nature of the program comes with Ishiguro’s setting. It does not take place in some distant future, but in the 1990s, as though it might now be going on within our own society. The clones have often been horribly abused and degraded; Hailsham was an attempt to find a better, more humane way of growing the clones–a bit of passive resistance that does not really work other than demonstrating that they have souls. They use the artwork that the students create to try and prove their humanity.

It’s horrible, yet conceivable. When you look at the history of the 20th century (or before), is it not within human nature to do something like this? Especially when the process is so humanized on the surface, but it is really an “out of sight, out of mind attitude.” They aren’t “real” people, so why not cut them up and harvest their vital organs? That’s why they were created. They don’t have souls because they were simply spliced together in a lab somewhere. They cannot love or feel; they contribute to society through their donations, so really it’s a noble life they lead.

Except they are people. Kathy’s narration demonstrates that. She has complex, conflicting, difficult feelings. She loves, she loses, she wishes, and she dreams. The one thing I would have like more from the story is if Kathy was actually dictating the story to someone, that it was a type of resistance or proof. We can read into it what we want, I suppose, that this is her account. Her narration is unreliable (though not in a negative way), she jumps around a bit, recounting and revising, remembering often through consensus long after the fact.

I need to read a third Ishiguro novel, just to learn a bit more about his narrative style. This was nearly identical to the style of Remains of the Day, which I read earlier this year. The narration was unreliable and in a vignette style, and I really enjoyed it. I would like to see if that’s how Ishiguro narrates all of his novels.

This is a brilliant, exquisite novel, and I’m waiting to see the film now!


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