The Daily Monocle

Critical book reviews from a literary skeptic.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Posted by J. P. Wickwire

Years ago, Kathy and her two best friends, Ruth and Tommy, were students at the elite Hailsham boarding school. Nestled in the British countryside, and isolated from most of the world, the children of Hailsham were always told they were special, and from their youngest days, always knew they would grow to become something different from the 'normals' outside their school.

Now grown, Kathy finds herself on the cusp of beginning a new stage in her life; of transitioning from a 'carer' to a 'donor'. With this change quickly approaching, she decides she needs to share her memories with someone, and in this case, that someone is we readers.

If this summary seems vague, or some of those terms don't make any sense, I cannot, in good conscience, apologize. Kazuo Ishiguro's fabulous Never Let Me go is best read if you know very little about the book itself (so don't go look it up on Wikipedia). Suffice to say that it is soft sci-fi, one of the best dystopian novels I've ever read, and I'm not sure why I haven't heard about it before now.

The plot is straightforward enough. Not simple, mind you; merely straightforward. It basically chronicles the life of the Hailsham students from their time at the school itself, to The Cottages—which is a transitional period between school and adulthood—into pseudo-members of society. But just as they've always been told they were 'special' at Hailsham, they are also 'special' in the world outside, albeit in a very different way. In Kathy's words:

"…she was afraid of us in the same way someone might be afraid of spiders. We hadn't been ready for that. It had never occurred to us to wonder about how we would feel, being seen like that, being the spiders".

The characters are well-defined, if very flawed. At times the characterization seems a little shallow, but I think that's a good thing. It emphasizes the larger aspects of the book. There is a lack of familial love at Hailsham, and so the characters make up for this by establishing strong, if immature, relationships. These close ties serve as a magnifying glass for every act of spite or jealousy; every kind word or work of friendship.

Never Let Me Go is a first person narrative, so most of what we see is through Kathy's eyes. Ishiguro did a marvelous job of not gender-typing Kathy, or any of the other characters in his novel. It isn't often you come across a male author who writes convincing, first-person, female characters (or vice versa).

But much of the praise I have for this book stems, not from the characterization or plot, but from the writing itself. Or perhaps, more precisely, how it was written. The students describe Hailsham as having an attitude of, "knowing but not knowing". This same attitude establishes the atmosphere for the rest of the book. Ishiguro's writing is subtly powerful, making you melancholy without your knowing why. He drops hints and skirts the heart of the matter with such skill, it feels as though you're slowly pulling back the prose one word at a time, in order to expose the stark truth underneath. His word choice is spot-on.

Never Let Me Go is written in a very 'English' dialect—that is, I could practically hear the English accent while I was reading. His meandering style of interlocking memories takes about 40 pages to get used to, but once you accustom yourself to this intimate prose, you begin to feel as if you're actually there, remembering Hailsham and reliving the characters' pasts.

You could classify this book as just another soft sci-fi/dystopian book, but more than that, it's a novel about innocence, knowledge, loss and being satisfied with the cards you're dealt. From page one, I was roped in by an unspeakable heartbreak borne out of a tragedy that hadn't happened yet, and I knew nothing about. On the last page, I had watched the tragedy unfold, and was left behind as the characters marched on.

Never Let Me Go is poised to become a modern-day classic. And if all of Kazuo Ishiguro's writing similarly evokes such bittersweet emotions, he will be a writer remembered for a very long time.

But it/read an excerpt on Amazon
Author's Website (He doesn't have a website, amazingly, so here's his Wikipedia page)


Marlene Detierro said...

What we wind up with is a bizarre coming-of-age love story, combining innocence and horror, in a situation where the simplest everyday events and decisions take on heroic implications.

This is one of the best novels published in the last 100 years. Don't miss it.

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