Having wanted to read Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro for several years, I have finally done so after picking up a copy from my local independent cinema – they have a book swap shelf in the bar. I have read one other Ishiguro novel (An Artist of the Floating World) several years ago and enjoyed it, and there was something about Never Let Me Go that really caught my eye. Whether this was the title or comments I had heard about it (notwithstanding the Booker Prize shortlisting), I’m not sure, but I had been on the lookout for a copy for a long time.
Never Let Me Go is set in a modern dystopian England, and although the timeframe is not clarified I had the impression that it starts out in the mid ‘90s. I’m not really sure exactly why I placed the novel in this particular decade; I suppose the novels general feel coupled with references to such items like a cassette Walkman placed my views as such. The novel is narrated by Kathy and centres on her experiences, with her two best friends, of growing up in a boarding school/care home environment, Hailsham School. The narration follows them through to adulthood – what their lives turn out to be like, and what their true purpose is. As the novel progresses, more information about the situation these people live in is revealed, mostly through indirect reference. As the narrator is also the main character, there is an assumption that the reader knows all about the world in this contemporary dystopia. In reality the reader is slowly fed who the pupils at Hailsham are, and what is expected of them in their adult lives.
The brilliance of this novel is in the narration; Kathy is a very likable protagonist that, as she is growing up, the reader can connect with. She is seemingly just an ordinary girl who is growing up in an environment that the reader cannot quite place but has many familiarities. Hailsham School, the students that live there, the ‘guardians’ that look after them often have the feel of normality about them. However, there is always a shrouded secrecy that is never fully revealed. A sense of almost foreboding and sadness seems to hang over each of the characters as they go about their daily routines. Kathy does not try to explain the true gravity of the situation, because the student’s situation is normal to them; the students do not fully understand, and neither does the reader to start with, the reasons why the children are at Hailsham. There is little exposition – the story and the environment in which the children live and grow up within (including the world outside of the Hailsham School) are not discussed at any great length. The reader must make their own assumptions on the lives in which the children lead.
Never Let Me Go is a very powerful and compelling novel. Ishiguro’s writing is emotionally charged and often beautiful; every part of this book is carefully structured to elicit a mixture of feelings within the reader from joy and happiness to sorrow and pain. The characters are completely believable in the absurd world that they encompass – their unknowing situation drives the reader forwards through the novel creating a suspense which would not be out of place in a conventional thriller. The book is also very difficult to categorise – I have read dystopian novels before but nothing quite like this where the timeframe and details outside of the main characters knowledge are left completely unknown. Never Let Me go seems to only have very subtle differences between the dystopia projected within the novel and our own reality; the crossover between the two is very blurred. Parts of the novel have the characters interact with people and places that could be, and in some cases are, real – a small group of Hailsham students visit Cromer in Norfolk for example. This crossover makes the novel quite unsettling in places.
I enjoyed reading Never Let Me Go, I thought that the style and approach to the novel is unique, extremely good and the story developed at just the right pace. In places the book was horrific, not explicitly so within the writing, but in its concept and what it doesn’t describe, leading the reader to fill in the blanks. I also found it very sad as you become more emotionally attached to the main characters. Ishiguro has written an extraordinary novel that stuck with me after finishing; it poses many questions and provides limited answers. It is also a novel that I will no doubt return to in years to come – I think that on second reading I will re-evaluate the book now that I know the outcome. I would urge anyone to read this wonderful book.
If you have read Never Let Me Go you may like:
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy
- Boxy an Star by Daren King