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The top ten bestseller from the Nobel Prize-winning author of The Remains of the Day
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
In one of the most acclaimed novels of recent years, Kazuo Ishiguro imagines the lives of a group of students growing up in a darkly skewed version of contemporary England. Narrated by Kathy, now thirty-one, Never Let Me Go 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.
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Perhaps the most clever way that Kazuo Ishiguro throws off the readers of Never Let Me Go is by setting it in the past. First published in 2005 but set in the late 1990’s one thing that you don’t expect is an element of sci-fi. Not aliens and spaceships, but a slightly askew world that is not any less dystopian than the likes of The Handmaid’s Tale or Brave New World, despite its unnerving familiarity.
It is this sense of familiarity that sets the novel apart and makes me wonder how to classify it. It’s not just a dystopian vision of genetic science, but also a coming of age memoir following the paths of three friends, and at the same time a contemplation of the nature of humanity, childhood and mortality.
So what is actually different this world? Imagine if Post-War scientific research had moved in a slightly different direction. Disease was conquered through successful human cloning and harvesting. But it’s not the science that’s under examination here. We don’t actually know what is donated by each individual. Actually I was left with lots of questions on this point but they don’t really matter.
The structure of storytelling is really important in this book. We are drawn into the fictionalised world very naturally. Kathy H introduces herself as a carer. So far so normal. However, before the end of the first page it is clear that something is not quite right. Who are the donors? Why would anyone be envious of Kathy living in a bedsit? As Ishiguro drops in familiar terms: ‘recovery centres’, ‘guardians’, ‘carers’, ‘donors’ it is the context that rings alarm bells. We slowly piece together how this alternate 1990’s works until by the end of the book we have a pretty good picture. At this point, of course, we know Kathy, Tommy and Ruth. Which is what makes it so very devastating.
From the start there is something slightly unnatural about the characters’ speech. Their directness seems very fitting when Kathy’s memories are from her childhood. It’s how my kids and their friends talk amongst each other. Similarly, their fantastical explanations of why things are the way they are seem incredibly familiar for anyone who comes into contact with children. However, as our trio reach maturity this tone does not change. They are forever in a state of emotional immaturity that makes their eventual fate seem all the more tragic.
Tragic because I was left in no doubt that these characters, these donors, are human. They are sentient beings and the organ farming that is taking place is truly horrible. Appropriately for Ishiguro’s meaning, though, the detail of what is happening is never described. It’s deliberately swept away in euphemism and gloss. Not dissimilar to a lot of humanity’s real-life activities, which is surely the point.
What is it that makes us human? Where is your moral line? I found just the idea that the characters’ initials after their first names may not signify what you expect enough to chill me to the bone. Through Kathy’s memory we have got to know these donors and carers. They seek to share memories, they seek comfort, they seek guidance and they seek to explain their world. Are these not human features? And is this analysis something that we should remember when we think of those around us in the real world?
Ishiguro is a master of memoir fiction, and you’ll be familiar with The Remains of the Day, if not on paper, then via Anthony Hopkins on the big screen. So through Never Let me Go, we only ever know what Kathy H knows. We discover what she discovers. There is so much that we never uncover. But as Tommy says, how can you understand when you’re not a donor. So perhaps these details are entirely unnecessary for the reader. Indeed the blanks that are left could be what leaves you feeling so desperately affected by this book.