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Never Let Me GoReview - Never Let Me Go
A Novel
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Vintage, 2005
Review by Tony O'Brien
Aug 16th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 33)

Never Let Me Go is a bleak novel that offers little respite from its dystopian vision of a society that tolerates not just cloning of humans, but the cloning of humans for no other purpose than to harvest their organs. Much of the moral point of the novel is left unstated, although towards the end there is a final confrontation that allows the key characters to nail their colors to the mast. The colors are pallid. The characters who question the ethics of the cloning program seek only to salve their consciences by carrying out their grotesque task in a more humane way. Their abhorrence of the 'Morningdale scandal' is merely ironic. Even the characters who are subject to this hideous regime are unable to fully understand its moral dimensions. It is hard to imagine a more cold and clinical world.

Never Let Me Go revolves around three central characters, Ruth, Tommy, and the narrator, Kathy. The story begins with Kathy, in her early thirties, reflecting on her life at Hailsham, and her work as a 'carer'. Through a series of key incidents we are introduced to a range of characters, all of whom are seen entirely through their life at Hailsham, a model institution that sounds at first like a boarding school. However this is no ordinary boarding school. By the time you realize that there has been no mention of parents, brothers or sisters or any sense of belonging outside of Hailsham, you have begun, like the children, to accept the normality of their cloistered life. Before long you will be asked, like the children, to accept a lot more. Kathy introduces a range of terms, such as 'completion', 'deferral' and 'possible' the meaning of which mark the children as special, and not destined to take a place in the outside world. 

Besides the children only one other group figures in this novel. They are the guardians, the adults who act as custodians, who provide classes, and who prepare the children for their future lives. There is little direct explanation of what lies before them, and readers must develop their understanding from Kathy's sporadic recollections of the guardians' a piecemeal lectures and indirect hints. The guardians are, in the main, austere and unapproachable, although there are moments in which even the most severe are seen as human and vulnerable. Miss Emily discovers Kathy singing the novel's theme song as she listens to the only cassette tape she owns. Miss Emily's reaction is one of distress, something that the narrator only fully understands late in the story. Miss Lucy seems the most approachable of what is a pretty grim bunch, but in the total institution that is Hailsham she is only able to hint at a wider understanding of the children's situation.

 Kathy is both naïve and perceptive. As a narrator she has recourse to a limited worldview, and her language is that of a cosseted teenager for whom the world is filtered through more knowing adults whose word she accepts implicitly. Through her relationships with Tommy and Ruth, Kathy is able to comment on friendship, loyalty and love. The emotional climax of the story is as poignant as that of any novel; and the pain and disappointments are equally moving.    

In the course of her recollections Kathy constantly refers to incidents that we have not yet heard of, and which she proceeds to explain. This technique drives the narrative forward, but it becomes a bit wearying, as if Ishiguro doesn't trust his readers to stay engaged. And there are plenty of reasons why you might want to put this book down. You feel afraid for Kathy, you don't want to believe that this sort of eugenics program could occur, you want to stop the deception and exploitation. But in the way horror stories are compelling even at their most bloodthirsty, Never Let Me Go grips you with morbid fascination and moral outrage.

  Ishiguro's writing is deceptively simple, something which fits the point of view of the narrator, and creates a discomforting sense or ordinariness about what is a bizarre and grotesque world. The naïve point of view is touching; there are many instances of a childlike view of the world which are both funny and sad. There is a belief, never fully dispelled, that all the lost objects in the world end up in Norfolk, another that the mysterious Madame, a woman who occasionally visits Hailsham to collect works of art produced by the children, is keeping a gallery of this work. The latter belief turns out to be not far from the truth, but for very different reasons than those imagined by the children.

As a work of fiction Never Let Me Go only partly succeeds. As a story about hope and despair it fully captures those emotions, but Ishiguro seems to want more from his science fiction like plot.  While Never Let Me Go provides a compelling narrative, a layered plot driven by love and shifting loyalties, and some convincing atmospheres, the overall effect is of incredulity. Perhaps such a regime is at least imaginable. But Never Let Me Go leaves some critical questions unexplained. People seem just too naïve, and there is a curious absence of a world outside that inhabited by the main characters of this novel.   

Ishiguro sets up a story that requires resolution both emotionally and dramatically. A lot hinges on the revelatory second last chapter, and the conclusion in the end seems rushed. You finish the book wondering if the theme of lost childhood needs such a portentous structure. Never Let Me Go is both disturbing and intriguing. It's not a light read, or even an enjoyable one. But for some reason I read it twice. That's probably a recommendation.

 

 

© 2005 Tony O'Brien

 

Tony O'Brien is a short story writer and lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: a.obrien@auckland.ac.nz

Editor's note: The unabridged audiobook is read by Rosalyn Landor, who does a fine job in her reading, at keeping a balance between the self-knowledge and motivated self-deception of the narrator.


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