Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go [Review]

[Contact Me] | [FAQ]

[Some "Dougisms" Defined]

[About Dickens of a Blog]

[Jump to Site Links]

BLOT: (04 Oct 2010 - 03:19:33 PM)

Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go [Review]

Never Let Me Go is one of those books. The sort where half the reviewers feel the need to toss in a jab at science fiction, whether it be the insulting compliment—"Normally the refuse of socially challenged basement dwelling mouth breathers, at least some science fiction has minor literary qualities!"—or the self-praise through pejorative—"I am not normally the sort to read pathetic dribble, but sometimes my angelic..." etc etc. Better writers than I have thoroughly mocked such statements, and so I'll leave them alone for now. They were just fresh on my mind after reading a dozen or so reviews while mustering my thoughts on this one.

Of course, this begs the question of whether or not Never Let Me Go is science fiction. It has, at its core, a technology that does not exist currently though everything else about it is something we have already passed (the main characters grew up in the late 70s and 80s, if I caught the references correctly, with the present being in the 90s) and generally devoid of substance. It has cassette tapes and LPs, not resplendent digital constructions absorbed by and gestated in complex matrices. There are no gleaming edifices to science blotting out the horizon by their glory, there are just lots and lots of back-roads and quiet little farms and boarding schools. Jane Eyre had more exciting locales than this book. If you like to read romantic pulp from the Eighteenth Century with the relative content of a mushy fig but sneer at anything tech-no-loj-ikal, you can give this book a go. Look at the title. Proper science fiction should have a name like Never Let Me Go...into the Gravity Wells of Blargus Prime.

Now, the second important question when it comes to this book. How. Much. to. Spoil? When this book came out five or six years ago, just about no one spoiled a damned thing. You were lucky if someone would get past "There is a girl named Kathy H., and she...um...stuff". I have never seen a book's content so protected. I suspect reasons may not have been altogether altruistic. See the above two paragraphs about why certain types of reviewers might avoid certain keywords to the plot. We are talking Man Booker shortlist material, not the pulp-stand at a local flea market. Looking back now, though, how much of a book is sacred? Can you spoil the first few chapters? The first third? The first half? Does it really matter? Should a book stand on its own? I don't know. Each book has its own level of plot secrecy that must be maintained. I could tell you right now that Captain Ahab does not survive Moby Dick and I don't think anyone would care. It just seems appropriate. How about this? I'll discuss a few salient details for a bit and then we can move on to the prose itself. Skip the next two paragraphs if you need (the bit between the two covers, below).

Hailsham is your typical repressed passions boiling under an idyllic surface British boarding school straight out of "making English-majors-to-be sigh" literature. Students form cliques, play games, get hot and bothered and worried about the degree of the bothering, make art, prank teachers, and try to decipher things above their maturity grade. Days of no circumstance fill up with a mixture of arbitrary rules and childish indiscretion. Except the days of no circumstance are the opening salvos to a truncated life expectancy. Classroom admonishments to avoid smoking, to stay healthy, to be productive, and to be creative are not merely motivational endearments cited by rote, but something more akin to following warrant instructions: these kids are not normal children, but living pods of healthy organs being raised for later harvesting when they come of age. The byproduct of a new scientific age of medical marvels. No one need fear cancer or heart disease any more. There is a cure, and it is grown inside of school children. The only cost is they have to die for you to get it.

Kathy H, the narrator and central character, is a somewhat standard kid. Nothing exceptional, except that she seems better at being a carer than most (carers are students who take care of others, the donors, at medical facilities). Being a carer is not a career path, but more of a early days introduction to the service (all carers eventually become donors, and it is implied that most, but not all, volunteer for the change-over). Ruth, Kathy's best female friend, is your archetypal strong-headed ringleader. Her and Kathy have a number of falling-outs and getting-togethers. Tommy, arguably Kathy's best friend and the source of a lot of forlorn tension from her despite him actually being with Ruth, is more of the blockheaded sort, played off as something of a simpleton with anger issues. As Kathy brings us through their time at Hailsham and into the decade or so past it, most stories are staged as being memories shared between them during later carer-donor sessions (she ends up being carer for each of them, at least for a time). What counts as something of a love triangle (but in classic, Ishiguro understatement for the most part) is contrasted to the medical horror surrounding their lives. Just another impediment to gather their rosebud's while they may, so to speak; because the flowers will very much be dying, and not far down the road.

Now that spoilers are out of the way, and hopefully some of you are still with me, let's take a look at the pluses and minuses of the book. First, the pluses. (Plusses? No, spell-check is telling me just one s.) We have a compelling idea, characters almost impeccably complicated, a deep sense of pathos nearly overwhelming, and a calm and measured narrator that never tarts things up. Ever. Even when she should. This later is a plus because a number of other, like novels might have been tempted into something like the sticky realm of grand speeches, big events, or *gasp* action sequences. By keeping it running with the even keel of a cup of mild Earl Grey, white, on a slightly damp morning, we are able to digest the utter despair of the proceedings a little more elegantly. Make no mistake, this book is the most genteel depiction of horror since No Blade of Grass. The first half has a sense of dread with the latter giving way to thin, plain chunks of despair, and yet our narrator could be talking about walking the dog (and by Jove, if she had a dog, we would have a few pages talking about walking it, I guarantee) for all the fervor she throws into it.

And the plot works well as a major allegory on the truth of education versus real life. Just like Battle Royale, this book's brother by another mother—violent, specific, and preachy in all the ways this book isn't—this is a book about school kids, raised to be a team and to play together, but expected to toss that as side as "childish things" in the real world. In BR, we get kids suddenly forced to kill each other off before they are killed. In Never Let Me Go, we get kids with dreams and hopes and art classes coming to grips with why it is only a temporary measure, who start to mock their own dreams and ideas, and eventually embrace the fate that destroys us. Outside of this book's one SF-trapping, how this is any different from real life, when we move from being football stars and blue-ribbon painters to expectations of a 40+ hour work week, of taking care of a family and a house, or being deemed unacceptable?

This is not to say that Ishiguro's work is without flaws. It feels unnecessarily tooled for book clubs, with a few omissions on purpose to dredge up discussion. The omissions hurt. As much as I personally appreciate a book that leaves some things up in the air, that lets background details surface sparingly, this only works when you write them out and then delete them after-the-fact. How does the system described a few paragraphs up work in light of the main character driving around the country side and tending errands and duties? And field trips? Is 30-year old Kathy willfully ignorant of the world around her? Or is she unable to comprehend the bigger picture? More fodder for book clubs, I guess. Her understanding of the world is limited to road maps and historical example. The big reveal about the meaning/outcome of their fate was the sort of thing that could have been researched in a local library. It loses some punch when you realize that we were lead along on a tether rather than out of necessity (most science fiction novels of the sort have actual secrets involved, that are discovered through force of will).

How does the medical reality of what they face work, for another? Quiet euphemisms like "Second" and "Third" and "Completed" overlay a confusing, and likely infeasible, reality about what would be happening.* The use of double-speak is the point, I suppose. The reality is something inevitable and mostly untenable. We put it in polite words and somehow it seems more acceptable, which has the ironic, and intended, consequence of making it altogether rougher on the reader's nerves.

And where is reaction from other-than-character sources? We are given only a brief, second-hand glimpse into the way the world works and the glimpse does not hold up superbly well under scrutiny. It is a backdrop painting meant to be another-England, and while it holds the stage, it is only through the "willful suspension of disbelief" that it has any hope of working. The scalpel's edge of analysis can make several deep cuts.

The biggest drawback to the whole book is the way Kathy tells the whole thing with emphasis on the building reveal. Imagine talking about an outing to a friend and saving the big punch line until the end. Fine, right? Now, imagine saving up a dozen minor plot points to be carefully hinted at over time with varying degrees of twists tossed in as you go. With keywords and thematic linguistics to lead the listener along. Oh, and half of your story's subsections begin with a blunt-force level of segue. If you are about to talk about the night you George went skinny dipping, then you begin the story like this: "Before I talk about George's sexuality and his later days campaigning for his local paper, there was the time where we went skinny dipping, and he had the encounter with a bee, when it was spring out and lessons were learned." Every time. It makes the whole thing feel like a series of confessionals, which is probably the intent, but the book is not properly staged as a series of confessionals, and several segments are prodded by this technique into a false stuffiness.

As the past catches up with the present, though, the stuffiness decreases and the last few chapters (told near the time of the narration) are more fleshed out and less hazy, as they should be. The characters have grown up in the course of the narrative, and feel very human, and the overall experience is haunting and complete. The kind of reading you cannot deny, even if you are put off by the subject or the handling. It has merit in the way that more accessible books often do not.

I found myself wondering if the book might have been handled better by a "less distinguished" writer, someone like Philip K Dick who might have tossed the subject out in the open early on, dealt with it bluntly, and then worked through the twists of existential terror in it with less delicacy and more soul. It would be a different book, with a fresh set of flaws, but it would add depth to the parts of this book that are quite shallow (and, no doubt, vice versa). The end product is powerful despite its issues, tear-jerkingly sad, and brutal on the nerves and heart. It is a Good book, a likable book, and one I do recommend if you are in the mood for it. Oh, and there is a movie just out, which looks like it tries to fix some issues of the background world but, by the trailer, likely at a cost of nuance. In some ways, it might be the equivalent of me getting my "wish", above.

* This footnote will contain a degree of spoilers, as well, though nothing specific. Bail out of it if you must... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... We are told that the organ harvesting comes in stages without any specifics at all about which organ goes when or where. Yet, one of the realities of organ donation is that losing a kidney means the rest of your organs suffer, losing something like a lung or a section of intestine will greatly impact the rest of your life, and there are other bits like hearts and stomach that will end it. There are also donations like blood and bone marrow that can be painful or destructive depending on quantity, but can go on more or less indefinitely. What could possibly contained in the first three donations that would give way to the fourth which is expected to the be the final (in the movie, it is implied the third is final) though some die after the second?

TAGS: Book Reviews

BY WEEK: 2010, Week 40
BY MONTH: October 2010

Written by Doug Bolden

For those wishing to get in touch, you can contact me in a number of ways

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The longer, fuller version of this text can be found on my FAQ: "Can I Use Something I Found on the Site?".

"The hidden is greater than the seen."