Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Review–Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

First of all, I want to thank Annette at for recommending this to me.

Never Let Me Go was an odd sort of dystopian themed novel, so subtle yet so emotionally intense. The story at first glance seemed like a pointlessly slow meandering through the main character, Kathy’s, childhood memories, but then there was also this almost malignant undercurrent of hinted at secrets and mysterious clues that alluded to something sinister that the guardians were hiding. It was downright eerie but oh so compelling. The end left me feeling thoughtful and thoroughly creeped out. I am always so fascinated by books that explore the darker aspects of human nature and this book is certainly one that exposes that. What is so brilliant about Never Let Me Go is that that “darkness” is only ever openly acknowledged and discussed at length close to the end, but it nonetheless casts a shadow over the entire tale. Throughout, there’s always this air of sadness and resignation. 

Kathy grew up in a school surrounded by other “special” students where their guardians emphasized the importance of art and poetry and where sex was treated like such a matter of fact topic that the students felt encouraged to experiment with it. The odd thing about this school is that there is never any mention of parents and some of the guardians hint at a specific reason why these students considered special. It was understood within the story that Kathy and her friends were basically somewhat aware of why they were special and what they were born to accomplish, but it is never really talked about openly, merely alluded to, which just builds tension for the reader as they wait to discover if what they have pieced together is right and if so, why? The students had apparently been given general information about their future duties but none of this was explained to the reader until the very end. It’s such a subtle and compelling style of writing, I found myself feeling equally intrigued and frustrated by all of my unanswered questions.

Much of this story felt like I was piecing together bits and pieces of information to get to the truth. The main character, Kathy, narrated the story and she would often stray from whatever topic she started off talking about only to abruptly return to the original idea, like she got lost in thought and had to remind herself what she had been talking about. The book seemed to aimlessly wander from past to present as Kathy examined her memories of school and what came later. . The unusual flow of the writing worked for me though. I didn’t find it hard to follow at all, instead I found that it was a clever way to allow the reader to emotionally connect with the characters and view the world through their eyes. I also thought that the subtle writing style was so effective at creating this mysterious and haunting atmosphere wrapped within what seemed like an almost ordinary tale.

The main characters were fascinating and infinitely relatable. Kathy was pragmatic and compassionate but also had a weakness of character that caused her to allow herself to be almost bullied and walked over by her domineering best friend Ruth. There were several times when she showed some backbone but even then, she often was the first to back down and apologize. Ruth was a variation of “mean girl”, overbearing and deceitful, but with an added layer of depth that it is hard to pinpoint. I often found myself feeling sorry for her, even when she didn’t seem to deserve it. Tommy, Kathy’s friend and love interest was also a mix of contradictions. He was at times pathetic and at other times extremely perceptive and intuitive. I found the characters to be authentic and I was oddly drawn to them, listening to their story to piece together the bits and pieces that explained who they were. It was also so incredibly complex how these characters seemed to complacently accept their lot on the surface, but would at the same time look for ways to find meaning to their existence.

I can’t express how much I loved that the author told this story using Kathy’s voice and her rather pragmatic view of her world and which showcased this matter of fact acceptance of her place in this bleak reality. It was such a contrast to how repulsed I was by the horror of the situation that was alluded to and only much later explained. I wanted her to rage and scream and fight back but the only hint of rebellion was the sad attempt to put off the inevitable. There was such an emotional depth to the story, both in the characters interactions with one another and in the ways they came to grips what their purpose was. It left me pondering the implications long after I turned the final page.

The ending felt abrupt and was a bit of an info-dump, although it was simply a confirmation of what I was able to piece together. I was able to discover if my suspicions were correct and was given a little bit of an explanation about why these things were happening. All of the explanations, however, were still rather vague and incomplete, the story ended without me ever feeling like I really had a grasp of the situation. Oddly, I still felt like I was satisfied with the ending as it was. It kind of made sense that if Kathy were telling this story, she would focus on those details and memories that were so important to her instead of answering the questions that I had. As I said, it was an unusual book. I liked it and will probably read it again sometime to hopefully understand a little more.

Rating - 4


Lis Carey said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it, but I had a lot of problems with it.

The most important, "these characters aren't human beings" problem is that they have no stories about escape--neither fairy tales about successful escapes, nor cautionary tales about the terrible fates of those who tried and failed. Humans tell stories, and they especially tell stories about the most vital, central survival issues of their lives.

We learn that most of the young people that fall in to the same class as Kathy and her friends are raised in much worse circumstances than they are. Most are raised in conditions that stunt their mental, emotional, and physical health. That would render them useless for their intended purposes.

This story is set in the UK, in fact primarily in England, the country where the Anti-Vivisection Movement was born and flourished starting in 1875, and is still alive and well. Yet the only evidence we have in the story of any resistance to the thing Kathy and her friends are part of is that they and those like them should be treated nicer until it's time for them to start fulfilling their purpose.

Ishiguro got all kinds of kudos for writing this book and "examining how society would be affected by [omitted to avoid spoilers as you have done.]" He didn't make a serious effort at it, and he ignored (probably is blithely unaware of) much earlier literature dealing with the subject, as well as basic things about human nature and UK culture.

"Literary" writers who do what they think of as "slumming" in science fiction rarely to it well, and this isn't one of the rare exceptions.

Donna said...

@Lis Carey

You make a very interesting point, and I can definitely see where you are coming from. I guess where I disagree with you is that I felt like this was an alternate history as well as dystopian which meant, to me, that in this version, the Anti-Vivisection Movement is perhaps not so relevant in this society. Also, Kathy and her peers, being raised so much outside of the realities of the world, it made sense that it wouldn't occur to them that rebellion was an option.
I also don't know that I agree with the "kudos" given for how the book examines how society would be affected by something like this (subject omitted again to avoid spoilers.) I felt like it only begged the more personal question, is this something I would be willing to condone for that kind of medical progress if my own child or loved one were the one that could be saved by it and then explores the reality of that kind of existence from the donors perspective.
Thank you so much for stopping by to comment!!

Annette said...

I, too, read it as more of an alternate or dystopian society. I thought your review was really spot-on. I found my self both frustrated and satisfied with the ending. They never come out and say what is really going on... but somehow you know... and just reading about Kathy's perceptions and beliefs was enough. Or maybe not....It's a book worthy of much discussion!

Donna said...

Thanks Annette, and I agree that it is definitely a book worthy of discussion. I watched the movie as well and found that I enjoyed the subtleties of the book that forces the reader to come to his or her own conclusions much more than the movie that basically spelled everything out. Thanks for stopping by to comment!

Anonymous said...

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Loraine said...

Great review! Here's mine if you don't mind:

Thanks and have a nice day!

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