Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (book)

I thoroughly enjoy reading the books for which movies were made before I see the movie. First of all, if you read the book first, you don’t already have this idea in your head of what everything is supposed to look like; you get to do a bit of the creative and imaginative work along with the author.

I just finished Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go a few days ago, and I’m going to see the film for its Boston debut this weekend (I’ll just go ahead and admit the bias now… I’m a big Carrey Mulligan fan, ever since she appeared in the BBC adaptation of Northanger Abbey (yeah, that’s right, I totally watch sappy Jane Austen BBC adaptations in the company of Mr. Jim Beam.).).

But first, the book…

What It’s About…

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go Kathy H. guides us through her childhood years at the secluded boarding school Hailsham, where she and her friends Ruth and Tommy grew up firmly sheltered from the outside world, naively engaging in all the strange Hailsham traditions and in the school’s suspiciously art-heavy curriculum.  As they grow older there, they begin to unwind some of the mysteries of the place, but not until much later do they come to understand why all of the ‘guardians’ were so awkwardly  wary around the students. When they finally leave Hailsham, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy must face what actually makes them and all the other Hailsham students so “special” as they’d been told. They must confront their inescapable destinies.

What I’ve Got to Say About It…

The best way I can characterize this novel is as a sort of  [insert public institution] cafeteria’s “Meat Medley Surprise” soup. You don’t really know what to expect and every spoonful of it is exactly as advertised – a surprise.  But there’s another big surprise in this concoction stirred up by Ishiguro – it’s actually really very good.

Certainly, Never Let Me Go is full of surprises (don’t worry I won’t give them away), but he is gentle in leading the reader to them. Our narrator Kathy brings us in on page one, making  us immediately a part of her particular world, and with her and her friends, we are gradually led to the truths behind the odd traditions at Hailsham and the whispered references to “the gallery” and “Madame”.  It all comes together smoothly, gradually, and with no lack of suspense. We come to the truth side-by-side with Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth.

Of course, before we get anywhere near the truth – surprise! – this suspensful, sci-fi-horror mix of a story becomes a love story as well. Not the kind of random “love story” that is haphazardly thrown into any action movies that happens to feature two members of the opposite sex, but really the whole story itself transforms and everything you’ve already read becomes part of the love story. Then, again – surprise! – the story becomes a socio-political parable and commentary on racial segregation and dehumanization, growing up “different”, and pop activism.

But, like I promised, I won’t give it all away. I will say that the writing is sneakily profound. The narrator’s voice doesn’t make this easy; it is naive, conversational, direct, sort of like gossiping with an old high school friend (guess that was kind of the point).  But through Kathy H.’s straight forward tone we get a detailed picture of the lives these students led, and it all feels normal and comfortable even, and, in the end, the level of comfort and in-group-i-ness that Ishiguro manages to foster in the reader is precisely what gets at you the most.

A Tantalizing Excerpt…

“I’ll never forget the strange change that came over us the next instant. Until that point, this whole thing about Madame had been, if not a joke exactly, very much a private thing we’d wanted to settle among ourselves. We hadn’t thought much about how Madame herself, or anyone else, would come into it. What I mean is, until then, it had been a pretty light-hearted matter, with a bit of a dare element to it. And it wasn’t even as though Madame did anything other than what we predicted she’d do: she just froze and waited for us to pass by. She didn’t shriek, or even let out a gasp. But we were all so keenly tuned in to picking up her response, and that’s probably why it had such an effect on us. As she came to a halt, I glanced quickly at her face – as did the others, I’m sure. And I can still see it now, the shudder she seemed to be suppressing, the real dread that one of us would accidentally brush against her. And though we just kept on walking, we all felt it; it was like we’d walked from the sun right into chilly shade. Ruth had been right: Madame was afraid of us. But she was afraid of us in the same way someone might be afraid of spiders. We hadn’t been ready for that. It had never occurred to us to wonder how we would feel, being seen like that, being the spiders.”

An Arbitrary Rating System…

4 mystery meat balls – 2 turkey, 1 soy protein, 1 popcorn chicken piece

About Kazuo Ishiguro…

Kazuo Ishiguro is a Japanese-English author, born in Nagasaki, Japan.  Other novels by Kazuo Ishiguro:


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