Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
For some reason, the film version of Never Let Me Go and Let Me In, the American remake of the film adaptation of Let the Right One In, are linked in my mind. Something about speculative fiction horror and the fact they were released in the same year squashed them together in my brain, to the point that I’ve often, in the past three years, had to remind myself they’re not when reading through, say, Keira Knightley’s filmography. I have been meaning to read the original novel of the former for quite some time, but reading Margaret Atwood’s thoughts on the novel in In Other Worlds made it rise up the list.
Never Let Me Go finds Kathy, a young carer (a sort of medical professional) in her twenties living in Britain, reflecting on her life as she faces the planned end of her career. As a young girl, Kathy attended Hailsham, an idyllic school in the British countryside, where she befriended the vivacious Ruth and the temperamental Tommy. She recounts stories of childhood trauma, pranks, and friendship as she tries to record everything about her relationships with Ruth and Tommy—after losing touch after school and training, the two come back into her life when they come under her care. Underneath all of this, though, is something quite sinister—the emphasis on how special Hailsham students are, and the way Madame, a constant visitor to the school, is terrified of them…
It’s difficult to discuss Never Let Me Go without spoiling that sinister something, but I feel behooved to at least try, although I was spoiled and it did nothing to blunt my enjoyment of the novel. For one thing, I try my best not to spoil anything that might affect the impact of a novel in my reviews, and, for another, Ishiguro spends much of the novel slowly shepherding you towards it. It’s not a sudden, third-act twist that explains everything, a la the early filmography of M. Night Shamalayan, but a creeping, dawning horror that’s worse than you can imagine. As our narrator, Kathy assumes you are privy to all the facts; this is a novel, I think, that would reward an instant reread, although I don’t indulge in the practice myself. The horror of Never Let Me Go doesn’t derive from the same place as other stories using the same premise (doctors coming for you in the night, to recall Parts: The Clonus Horror, a very good episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000), but rather from the intellectual and moral toll this system takes not only on Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy, but also ourselves.
As a narrator, Kathy is very quiet and matter-of-fact—Ishiguro pushes for realism in her voice, as she often double-backs on her own narration, mentions that others don’t remember the same events the way she did, and often forgets what exactly she said in a situation. The other characters tend to dominate her stories, especially Ruth, a strong-willed, charming girl whose increasing desperation to keep up often makes her sacrifice her friends. But Kathy’s quiet narrative voice still manages to shine through, as she calmly and fondly remembers Hailsham, and her personal observations are clear and true. This is a woman that feels a little guilty that she often tries to avoid friends when she’s decided to spend the day on her own out in the world. Such a voice makes the novel feel like a bit of a fairy tale, although that also comes from the fact that the students are quite ignorant of the rest of the world. It’s quite engaging on its own, and when the story begins tying itself together at the end, it gives you an anchor through the harsh reality.
Occasionally, there’s a stumble in the voice—while Kathy talks quite frankly about sex, because of the students’ unique relationship to sex, she’s never vulgar, until she curses internally at the end of the novel. And, as you may have been able to guess, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are set up as a love triangle, a la much of today’s young adult fare. But there’s not a single hint that Kathy and Tommy are interested in each other until Ruth, seemingly, decides that they are. Given Kathy’s reticence about her love life—she mentions a handful of lovers, but never in any great detail—I might be able to see why not, but I had so been enjoying their platonic relationship that I was startled by the change. But these two stumbles—a word and reticence—are hardly enough to wound Never Let Me Go’s quiet, unassuming, and painful horror.
Bottom line: Pointedly painful and gorgeous in its minimalism. Never Let Me Go examines the intellectual and moral toll its institution takes not only on its main characters, but also on us, in the quiet, matter-of-fact voice of Kathy. Well worth a read.
I rented this book from the public library.