Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) is about the illusions of the strange, enchanted world of childhood and the loss of innocence that growing up involves. It’s also a love triangle. The backdrop is an alternative present where science and ethics took a different turn, but it could mislead readers to label it science fiction. The novel it reminds me of most is Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale; both are subtle, emotionally engaging literary dystopias, and in both the world of the narrator is only gradually revealed.
At one point in the novel, Kathy, the narrator, explains how she and the other children growing up in Hailsham, a special boarding school, are told things without being told things. Their teachers mention words and concepts about the children’s fate – ‘donations’ ‘completions’ ‘carers’ – a year or two before they explain them. By the time the teachers explain these things a little more – and nothing is ever explained clearly – the children have already normalised the words, so they feel they already know what they’re being told.
This goes some way to explaining why the children don’t fight against their fate; it also explains Ishiguro’s narrative method. Our realisations as readers come in a similar way to the children’s knowledge – the strange euphemisms for what is going on begin to play at our minds, until we’re not surprised when the horrific truths do become apparent. It kept me turning pages and tense, and also frustrated – ‘I just want to know what’s going on!’. Of course, that’s probably exactly how Ishiguro wanted me to feel.
It is a poignant novel told in Kathy’s vulnerable voice, looking back at her life at age 31, and, in particular, her best friends Tommy and Ruth. Ishiguro could have made her bitter and angry or determined to escape her fate. Instead, her grateful, sentimental tone makes the novel a brilliant one: it is so unsettling. We the readers are horrified at the injustice she faces, while she is quite calm about it.
As much as anything, it is a novel about mortality: the plight of Kathy and her friends and the way they live in the face of death is a kind of parable for our lives. You might come away from the novel wanting to appreciate your life more, and if you do Ishiguro has achieved something important.