Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian novel Never Let Me Go was recently made into a feature film starring Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan, which no doubt contributed to the five-year-old book’s current three-month stint as a NYT Trade Paperback bestseller. I was dying to see the movie, but, alas, it wasn’t widely released and my local indie theater only carried it for a week. Not to be discouraged, I ordered the book, encouraged by the high praise it received from the NYT’s oft-disparaging Michiko Kakutani and Time magazine, which called it “the best novel of the decade.”
The book hinges on a central conceit (which I won’t reveal), layering clues upon clues until the reader finally understands the eerie truth. But Ishiguro isn’t a one-trick pony, and though the conceit is spelled out by page 81 (and, honestly, can be guessed from the very first chapter), readers will find that revelations about Never Let Me Go’s parallel world continue throughout the novel, growing gradually more disturbing and damning for its fictional inhabitants.
Kathy H. is the novel’s narrator and primary protagonist, a 31-year-old “carer” who is ordering her memories in preparation for the end of her career. Her life is divided into three stages, the first being her time at Hailsham, an odd boarding school in the English countryside.
Kathy is something of a shrinking violet, so it makes sense that she, among all the Hailsham students, is the one introspective and observant enough to remember her life and the lives of her friends in such detail. Her best friend is Ruth, a headstrong girl who plays fast and loose with things like telling the truth and respecting other people’s feelings. Rounding out the trio (and effectively turning it into a love triangle) is Tommy, a boy first defined by his terrible temper and, once he’s conquered that, a childish passivity.
Hailsham itself bears similarities to a typical boarding school in that the children are organized by year and take lessons, but they have no contact with the outside world and families are never mentioned. In this insular community, the children are raised by aloof “guardians” who rarely even touch them. Hailsham students are encouraged to be creative and carefree, and allowed to develop their own cliques and rituals and vocabulary (“umbrella” is their slang for being gay).
In most respects, Hailsham is an idyllic place to spend one’s childhood. When trouble intrudes, it’s in very minor, but telling, ways. Miss Lucy is a guardian who frequently goes off message and is eventually sacked, but not before she tells some of the teenage children, “The problem, as I see it, is that you’ve been told and not told. You’ve been told, but none of you really understand, and I dare say, some people are quite happy to leave it that way. But I’m not. If you’re going to have decent lives, you’ve got to know and know properly.”
To the children, her speech is just what they’ve heard before and doesn’t make much of an impact, which illustrates Miss Lucy’s point perfectly. The children at Hailsham know they are “different,” and, as they age, are given increasingly detailed information about just what that difference means. But the intrepidity of youth, a theme recurring throughout the novel, prevents them from truly accepting ill fate, even when it is known to them.
Tommy and Ruth are an on-again-off-again item at Hailsham and then at the Cottages, where the second, intermediary stage of Kathy’s life takes place. In contrast to heavily supervised Hailsham, the Cottages are like an R.A.-free dormitory for young adults (some of whom are from boarding schools other than Hailsham), where they are encouraged to work on essays (which have no deadline), but free to take trips and roam the countryside and sleep with whomever they choose.
At the Cottages the Hailsham trio’s carefully measured identities start to erode. Kathy struggles to navigate her sexuality while parsing her feelings for Tommy, and Ruth drifts away from her two oldest friends. The beauty of the changes Ishiguro describes is that, though ordinary and relatable, they are imbued with a certain sense of urgency.
I won’t reveal much about the third stage of the book, except to say that it is bittersweet and surprising. Ishiguro sets up what amounts to a house of cards, and when it crumbles and crushes the protagonists, the reader is shaken as well. The slow pacing elicits enough curiosity to be maddening, at times, but after finishing the novel and reflecting on what happened, it occurred to me that Ishiguro had done to the reader what Hailsham did to its students: both told and not told us, given us most of the information up-front, but saved key context to be spooned out gradually.
Never Let Me Go is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read this year, full of thought-provoking statements about ethics and kindness, while avoiding overly moralizing statements that would turn a good book preachy. I highly recommend it.