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Never Let Me Go
Kazuo Ishiguro
Knopf, 304 pages

Never Let Me Go
Kazuo Ishiguro
Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan, on 8 November 1954. He came to Britain in 1960 when his father began research at the National Institute of Oceanography, and was educated at a grammar school for boys in Surrey. Afterwards he worked as a grouse-beater for the Queen Mother at Balmoral before enrolling at the University of Kent, Canterbury, where he read English and Philosophy. He was also employed as a community worker in Glasgow (1976), and after graduating worked as a residential social worker in London. He studied Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, a member of the postgraduate course run by Malcolm Bradbury, where he met Angela Carter, who became an early mentor. He has been writing full-time since 1982.

He was awarded the OBE in 1995 for services to literature and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He was awarded the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in 1998. His work has been translated into over 30 languages.

Kazuo Ishiguro lives in London with his wife and daughter.

ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Trent Walters

I was quite ecstatic to hear that Kazuo Ishiguro had decided to try his hand at the genre. His early novels have fascinatingly complex views of character -- books that require rereading. Much is made of Ishiguro's use of memory. Some consider Ishiguro's common motif of playing with memory to result in unreliable narrators. Certainly, this consideration is always crucial when probing memory. Its use in other novels is up for discussion, but in Never Let Me Go, while present, its use is largely inconsequential.

Often the narrator, Kathy, tells us "The way I remember it..." or tells us another character's version of events, but the differences between one character's story and another are generally minimal, which has a paradoxical effect: we trust Kathy more because she struggles to recreate an honest memory. Nothing major in the narrative serves to undermine her attempts at sincerity even if other characters might have a slightly different take. The narrator validates this reasoning:

"The memories I value most, I don't ever see them fading.... I won't lose my memories of [friends she'd lost]...." Despite other losses, she takes pride in the memories that cannot be taken away
It is because of this that readers have been able to accept the novel as an alternate history in which biology had advanced fifty years earlier than it has in our universe. The novel never gets explicit about this advance, but it's fairly clear from all of the references. Kathy talks circuitously about the advance as one might have once spoken of sex or some other topic that was once not considered a polite topic of conversation. For those who might think this is a major revelation (I personally don't since it is fairly plain a quarter of the way in), I'll only allude to the advance in a similar manner.

Sometime after WWII, a biological technology allowed a different group of humans to grow up under guardianship at various English schools until they were of age.

"[Y]ou must try and see it historically," a guardian explains, "[W]hen all the great breakthroughs in science fell one after another so rapidly, there wasn't time to take stock, to ask the sensible questions. Suddenly there were all these new possibilities laid before us... This is what the world noticed the most, wanted the most. For a long time, people wanted to believe [major revelation] appeared from nowhere... By the time people became concerned... by then it was too late.... How can you ask a world... to go back to the dark days? [...People] tried to convince themselves [major revelation] weren't really like us."
This kind of cautionary language about science -- handed down from Mary Shelley and Nathaniel Hawthorne -- has not been seen since the New Wave challenged the complete faith in the progress of science. It's hard to fault when one remembers Tuskegee and nuclear bombs although I doubt many readers will be paying attention considering Ishiguro's typical audience. The principle, because the subject matter isn't blunt, will be applied and revoked when it suits readers, but then who would listen if the principle became too specific, and people had to reassess their beliefs?

Kathy grows up among this different humanity in the most liberal age toward her kind, wherein a private school can house, educate and treat these children as special. The education is not terribly broad. Art, literature, and sports appear to be the primary activities (there may be a reason math and science and social studies aren't taught but it's never brought up). However, even among the boys, sports do not seem to rate very high -- which is rather odd if these humans share attributes with us. Nonetheless, these different humans gossip, love, abuse, and dream like the rest of us.

Do I really mean "like the rest of us?" In fact, Kathy off-handedly (but often enough) refers to her readers: "I don't know how it was where you were, but..." Kathy assumes we are one of them. This shared likeness attempts to involve the reader in a deeper empathy, yet the narrative prevents this since few readers have had similar luxuries of time and truncated futures. It begs for identification where none is possible.

Her life falls roughly, like all lives of this group, into four categories: education, cottage weigh stations, carer, and donor. The novel begins well enough. We learn as Kathy learns -- piecemeal -- about what her future may hold, which develops Kathy into a well-rounded young girl who must deal with her troubled friends: Ruth and Tommy.

Ruth is a bossy big dreamer. She has imaginary horses and recruits a secret guard to protect their favorite guardian, Miss Geraldine. Ruth's imagination is bound only by those who spoil her dreams so that she cannot carry on, at which point either gives up the dream or gives up the friend who would spoil Ruth's dreaming. Tommy is Ruth's opposite, which may not be obvious at first. He's the realist, the daft outsider and the protester. Because he can be teased by others, he is. Tommy doesn't take it well. Tommy only fits in when he learns that the importance his classmates place on their abilities in life may be misplaced. It doesn't matter that he cannot do art, one guardian tells him.

These may not sound like friends you'd like to meet, but small groups tend to throw unlikely companions together. Kathy is the glue between these disparate friends. Her personality is almost wholly shaped off her reaction to these two. She spoils Ruth's dreams throughout, only to find herself trying to patch the dreams back together again in order to live in them herself. Ruth, for instance, implies that Miss Geraldine has given Ruth a pencil case. After Kathy bluffs to test the truth of Ruth's implication, Ruth hides the case from sight, so that Kathy, knowing the importance of these illusions to Ruth (and perhaps to Kathy herself), tries to reinvent the mystery and illusion of the pencil case's origin. Kathy finds herself constantly in the position of shattering and piecing together Ruth's dreams so that Kathy becomes simultaneously an atheist and theist of their reality.

Kathy contrasts with Tommy as an insider and tries to get him to fit in with the rest of the group. Instead, as Kathy's attempt to spoil Ruth's dreams made Kathy a dreamer, Kathy becomes an outsider, too, questioning her role in society.

So far so good. Rather, this is what a regular reader expects from a Ishiguro novel -- so intricate and complex that you have to read it again. What's stunning is that Ishiguro made up for his slightly less than usual complex character for a more complex society that comes close to being an important novel in the genre, even if it earns no cigar.

Initially, the speculative background and characterization marry like all good science fictions should. As the novel wears on, the seams begin to show and the armor of its speculation is worn a little thin in spots. The premise is essentially unviable. This group should only rarely survive even one incident in the last phase of life, considering our presently popular diseases. There should be no mistaking which class Kathy and her ilk originated from, and if not from that class, then they presumably contain world-class genetics, in which case Kathy and friends ought to be reared much more rigorously to see what kind of product came about in new environs.

At the very least, raising a child in this manner would be a financial burden, so this breed of humanity must pay back to society in one manner or another, through working. Can society afford so many sponges, even if they aren't a liability long?

That's just one major question that prevents the premise from being fully realized. Kathy and ilk look for matches, so to speak, which they call "Possibles." If a Possible knew he had a match somewhere, wouldn't he go looking as well? Does Lucy, their guardian, actually have another motive for rescinding what she told Tommy, or is it simply an empty plot gimmick (I love gimmicks -- that work) to send Tommy sniffing down the wrong trail? It's asking and answering these types of questions that create a sense of full roundedness to the speculation that the latter half of the novel lacks. It isn't that Ishiguro's novel can't be told; it's that it needs more probing. Where literary fiction frequently insists on realistic characters, SF insists on realistic and realized worlds (and characters, too, hopefully). Some complain about the dialogue at the end but this seemed realistic. If anything, much of this revelation ought to have occurred as Kathy discovered her world, and more questions asked so that the final revelation has more magic.

Which brings us to Kathy, as a character in a society not exactly like our own and as something of an outsider as the reader is: Why isn't she or any of the others more inquisitive, more disagreeable about their condition? There's one small moment of protest at the end -- which causes one to wonder if Ishiguro picked the right narrator -- but otherwise, no one flees, let alone fights verbally or physically. They all accept their fate. As much as this story appears to be a tale of Pinocchio on a grand scale, one has to wonder if these really are wooden puppets if they fail in a human quest for knowledge and independence. Surely at least one would act out. Instead, they seek to mimic the world that spurns them, imitating television or books, which would be quite like humanity if it didn't come in light of the fact that this pipeline of information comes from those who don't give a damn.

One more minor quibble, and I'll conclude with praise for Ishiguro as a literary hero. Since this narrative is told through Kathy's memory and memory is often referenced, a reader cannot expect a strictly chronological rendering. However, sometimes the chronology (ultimately set by the author) is not placed to its best effect. One scene in particular lacks emotive punch because the novel doesn't explain a character's reaction so that the novel must backtrack chronologically: Kathy confronts Ruth with Ruth's attempt to be just like the cottage veterans while Ruth confronts Kathy with a cryptic repost, which doesn't make sense until it is explained later.

Still, it hurts not to have just praise for Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go since, apart from not asking enough questions of his society, the world is as rich as its characters. It's a book that begs to be reread for successively deeper understandings. SF needs more books like these. If you don't mind a few problems in your speculative worlds, check this one out. Bear the title in mind throughout, and maybe reread this review after you finish it since I obliquely refer to things a delight to uncover. There's plenty left to plunder (which is one reason why this review took so long to contemplate and might change slightly after another reading).

Let us hope that Ishiguro visits our humble genre once again.

Copyright © 2005 Trent Walters

Trent Walters' work has appeared or will appear in The Distillery, Fantastical Visions, Full Unit Hookup, Futures, Glyph, Harpweaver, Nebo, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Speculon, Spires, Vacancy, The Zone and blah blah blah. He has interviewed for, Speculon and the Nebraska Center for Writers. More of his reviews can be found here. When he's not studying medicine, he can be seen coaching Notre Dame (formerly with the Minnesota Vikings as an assistant coach), or writing masterpieces of journalistic advertising, or making guest appearances in a novel by E. Lynn Harris. All other rumored Web appearances are lies.

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