Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never let Me Go
Some books take their time drawing you in. Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian novel Never Let Me Go is a perfect example, though once it has you, it carries you on an emotionally satisfying (and at times touching and sad) journey.
It’s hard to discuss the book without revealing a few keys twists. In general, the book is told in flashback by Kathy H. as she examines her life, focusing on the friends she made while a “student” at Hailsham. These bonds continue as they move to the “Cottages” post-school and prepare to integrate into the real world, from which they been kept and know very little about.
Part of the technique Ishiguro uses as a strength in the book is the same thing that creates an unsettling confusion in the beginning: where are we and what is going on? Something feels “off” early, but what’s fun about the book is discovering the world in which the story is set and how the world—that is, the different world of the characters—is revealed to Kathy and her close friends Ruth and Tommy.
It’s difficult to create a fictitious world for any author. Typically, an author has to go to great lengths to establish the ins and outs of a world in order to orient the reader. Here, Ishiguro does not. The confident narrator Kathy—or Kath—talks about the environment of Hailsham, the roles of the adults around them (the “guardians”), this business about “donations,” and the mysterious “Gallery” to which all the students aspire to have their work taken.
By not drawing too much attention to these fantastic details, the author trusts the reader that all will be revealed in time, and the strength of the prose—where the narrator tends to offer a brief glimpse ahead (saying things like “Until that day by the pond”)—lets the reader know that you are in the hands of a master storyteller. The novel would have fallen apart had it not been for Ishiguro’s deft hand.
The heart of the story arrives when, long before Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy leave Hailsham, the reader grasps the pretty bleak picture of the future that waits for these three. What lies ahead in the form of these “donations (in which they will all take part)? And what does it mean to be a “carer”?
Initially, the clues that create the picture are unclear on the first read—Miss Lucy’s rage about their situation, the comment about the Nazi concentration camp inhabitants not electrocuting themselves on the fences when they could have, Madame’s revulsion towards the students. Yet they appear, encouraging the reader to hold on to them until—like a Polaroid picture—things become clear. This allows the reader to enjoy the innocence of these children while they can, not spoiling it. We also experience the knowledge the way the kids did.
Handled a different way, this material may have come across as heavy handed—too much of a “message”; however, by pacing the details and picking appropriate times to reveal the horrors of their world, the author crafts a strong story, one that will stay with you long after you have put the book down.