37. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005) 282 p.
Narrated by a thirty-one year old “carer” named Kathy, Never Let Me Go is a retrospective account of her childhood life, growing up in an idyllic English boarding school called Hailsham. It details the minutae of her personal relationships, the complex triangle between her best friend Ruth and their mutual love interest Tommy, and the way she thinks about them today. That sounds pretty much like what you’d expect from a book with a cover like that, yes? Something your older sister would read?
Wrong. Hailsham isn’t an ordinary boarding school. The children don’t ever seem to leave. Some of their teachers seem curiously anguished about them. They don’t have surnames, or any apparent parents. It’s only gradually, with information supplied in seemingly innocuous tidbits, that the reader learns the disturbing truth about the children of Hailsham, and the fate that has always awaited them in the larger world. Appropriately, that’s how the children themselves learn about it too:
Tommy thought it possible that the guardians had, throughout all our years at Hailsham, timed very carefully and deliberately everything they told us, so that we were always just too young to understand properly the latest piece of information. But of course we’d take it in at some level, so that before long all this stuff was there in our heads without us ever having examined it properly.
I can’t exactly call it a plot twist, since it’s implied heavily and then revealed early – in fact, by page 80 you know almost everything. Nonetheless, it’s a dark, grim mystery that’s concealed at first, and the effect was greatly ruined for me because I already knew what it was (in fact, that’s why I wanted to read the novel in the first place). Whatever you do, don’t even glance at the Wikipedia article for this book. Suffice to say that it’s literary fiction with a sci-fi veneer, much like Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake (though not quite as good).
What I found so overwhelmingly frustrating about Never Let Me Go was the characters’ complete and total acceptance of their fate. They don’t like it, but they don’t fight against it, either, despite being perfectly capable of doing so. They’re allowed to leave Hailsham as they grow older, and Kathy spends plenty of time travelling around the countryside unhindered. She could easily flee the country or go into hiding. But she doesn’t, and there’s never any evidence that her fellow students try to either. They go along with their destiny as though it doesn’t even occur to them that there might be an alternative.
This is, of course, the ideological point of the story. Something about unquestioning acceptance, and how it can destroy you. I don’t know. Despite having a very expensive education that was supposed to train me to pick apart texts, I usually fail to do it when I’m engrossed in a book, apart from a fleeting awareness of the layers of symbolism and allegory.
And I was engrossed in this book, because despite being largely chick lit, the premise and writing style make it quite readable. I wouldn’t say it’s a great book, and I certainly can’t agree with Time Magazine placing it on the 100 list* instead of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (which, the more I think about it, was one of the most perfect books I ever read). But I can certainly recommend it to almost anyone.
Books: 37/50 Pages: 11, 395
*Don’t read that, either, because it’s also full of spoilers.