No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, March 12, 2006

#18: Never Let Me Go -- Kazuo Ishiguro

It's always interesting to read mainstream fiction that deals with genre themes. Never Let Me Go is on the shortlist for the Arthur C Clarke Award, and was shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize. "The year's most extraordinary novel," according to the Sunday Times.

I tried very hard not to read reviews of it before reading the book itself, and I would strongly suggest that you do the same, dear reader. At least part of its impact depends on the gradual revelation of that genre theme.

If you haven't read the book, please note that this review contains spoilers.

Are you sitting comfortably? &ly;g>

Never Let Me Go is set in an alternate world: "England, late 1990s", it says on the frontispiece (would a genre novel feel that necessary?) but this is an England where the post-war boom, the brave new world, channelled its scientific endeavours into different areas. This is a novel about cloning: no, a novel about clones. It might be a novel about what it is to be human: it might be a novel about a love triangle. It might be a novel about oppression, or fate, or free will.

Kathy is a carer. She's looking back at her school years, spent at Hailsham -- a country boarding school, it seems, where the students were encouraged to be artistic and to express themselves. Gradually, Kathy's narrative focusses on two of her classmates, Tommy and Ruth. It's a wonderfully discursive narrative, with the rhythms and digressions of true reminiscence: oh, such-and-such a thing happened, but then to understand that you need to know about the thing that happened before, and when I last saw Tommy he said he thought that ...

There's a deceptive simplicity to the prose, as though it's the actual narrative of someone who isn't used to writing, to the lyrical uses of words. The school scenes are claustrophobically full of the melodrama of school life: cliques and outsiders, rumours about the teachers, students seeing things they shouldn't see and then drawing erroneous conclusions from them.

The revelations are gradual and subtle. The children, the students, have a purpose in life. Some of the teachers are repulsed by them, the way people are repulsed by spiders. (At one point I wrote in my notebook, "They're not human.") The students are not like normal people in the outside world, and there's a wistful sense of any exposure to normal life being a special treat. They don't have parents. They are, apparently, sterile. Their art is important, because it might show their souls.

Very little actually happens: in one sense, it's a tale about the rumour of a happy ending that proves to be false. The more I think about this novel -- and especially the ending -- the more I wonder if, after all, Kathy doesn't have a soul: if she is drawn to Ruth, and especially to Tommy, because they are more human than she is.

I'll be thinking about this book for a while, I can tell: trying to put my finger on why it works, and on why it feels so different to any of the genre novels I can think of that deal with the theme of cloning.


  1. I read Never Let Me Go in one day over the Christmas holidays. I really liked it. Unfortunately it was spoiled by the Amazon review I read when I was putting it on my wishlist. I think it would have been incredible to read it knowing nothing in advance.

    Do you know it was on that Time magazine all time greatest books list last year? I was surprised that a book so new was already on a list like that, it seems to me that they're usually books that have been around for a while.

  2. I'm astounded that it was on the 'greatest books' list: that makes me wonder if I'm missing something, because although I enjoyed it I don't think it's groundbreaking! Perhaps, having read so much SF, I'm more used to fictional explorations of the subject matter (which is a timely one, given the advances being made in that area).

  3. I wasn't enormously impressed by some of their other choices either. Good books, but hardly the greatest since Time Magazine began!