NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro

Book Quote:

“Maybe from as early as when you’re five or six, there’s been a whisper going at the back of your head, saying: “One day, maybe not so long from now, you’ll get to know how it feels.” So you’re waiting, even if you don’t quite know it, waiting for the moment when you realize that you really are different from them.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate (SEP 13, 2010)

This is a magnificent achievement, one that I personally rate above all other Ishiguro novels, because it adds an unexpected and quietly devastating emotional dimension to his already-powerful armory. Although this book has something of the alternative-reality feel of  The Unconsoled, it is by no means as difficult to read. It probably beats even The Remains of the Day in the surface lucidity of its narration, and emotions that had been denied or repressed in that earlier novel are here allowed to flower, albeit briefly. Indeed, one strand of this most unusual Bildungsroman is a love story, simple, true, and almost traditional, though denied the traditional happy-ever-after ending.

It opens at Hailsham, a secluded co-ed boarding-school in the English countryside. I am sorry that many reviewers, professional and otherwise, have given away the secret of what the book is about, since the pace at which Ishiguro reveals information is masterly. First, he gives hints that Hailsham is not a normal school and that its pupils are somehow special. Then he lets drop pieces of information, though never the complete picture. Even when the book is over, there are still larger mysteries out there that are never explained. Indeed it is not only the readers who must accept the mystery; the characters themselves are hesitant to demand explanations for what they have not been told; it is part of what sets them apart as a sub-class, living apparently full lives within a cage of which they are only dimly aware.

There is a scene about three-quarters of the way through the book, after the heroine Kathy has graduated and travels widely around Britain in her own car. She takes a couple of her friends on a trip to see an old boat, beached on the edge of the Eastern fens. It’s just “this old fishing boat, with a little cabin for a couple of fishermen to squeeze into when it’s stormy.” A common enough sight along the shoreline, one would think. But for the people in this story, it acquires almost mythic significance. Kathy first hears about it as far away as Wales, and those who have been to see the boat are given the respect due to returning pilgrims. But for people who are effectively institutionalized, such outings can seem very special indeed; I remember feeling the same about some day-trips from boarding school, or later from a long-stay hospital. It is a brilliant device of Ishiguro’s to demonstrate the smallness of his characters’ world by showing the intensity of their enthusiasm for something so apparently trivial. It is one of his dominant techniques in The Remains of the Day, and it recurs in each of the four books of his that I have read.

It is interesting that Ishiguro states the place and time quite baldly on the first page as “England, late 1990s,” five years before its actual publication. Such glimpses of the outside world as we get, increasingly towards the end of the novel, are tied more closely to place and time than is usual with this author. And yet the basic premise of his story would have been impossible in the nineties. Although he is essentially writing science fiction, he needs to set it in the familiar world to prevent his readers from slipping into a special sci-fi gear. The most touching thing about his quite extraordinary characters is precisely their ordinariness, framed towards the end by long car journeys between various decrepit facilities and lonely evenings in bed-sits. The heartbreak of the closing paragraph is conjured out of a description of windblown rubbish, “torn plastic sheeting and bits of old carrier bags,” caught in a wire fence.

In each of his novels, Ishiguro seems to take a particular genre of British popular fiction and rework it to his own ends: the Upstairs/Downstairs story in The Remains of the Day, or the Great Detective story in When We Were Oprhans. Here, although the author surely owes much to John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, the dominant genre is not science fiction but the boarding-school novel. And once again, he has captured the convention to a tee; it is also clear that he has been through such schools himself. This is all the more remarkable in that this book features a young woman as narrator and a mostly female cast, and thus breaks away from the classics of the genre (for example, Kipling’s Stalky & Co) which all have a boys-school bias. But he has the adolescent female psychology down pat, especially the way that the closest friendships can also harbor intense rivalries.

Ishiguro’s appropriation of classic British tropes is parallel to what I see as his attempts to enter British society. Even today, English society is inherently dominated by class — or rather caste — with great importance placed on being a member of an in-group, and on the numerous ways, subtle and not so subtle, of reminding others that they are merely outsiders and not “one of us.” An immigrant from another culture, however talented and however well-connected, could not help but feel this even more acutely. Ishiguro’s books are peopled with characters who believe themselves to be part of a privileged elite, but are still conscious of a true elite beyond their circle to which they will never belong. The boarding-school setting is a perfect metaphor for this, beginning with shifting in-groups among the students themselves, extending to the distinctions between the older and younger students, and eventually moving into the outside world, where having been to such a school at all is both a mark of privilege and a handicap.

One might even say that it has a metaphysical component, questioning whether a life led in accordance with rules set by an unseen power that can change them at a whim is worth living at all. What, in short, do any of us live for? Ishiguro’s answer in this book seems to be that you simply have to live as best you can. I find it a strangely reassuring one.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 958 readers
PUBLISHER: Vintage; Mti edition (August 31, 2010)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Kazuo Ishiguro
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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September 13, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Alternate History, Literary, Scifi, United Kingdom, y Award Winning Author

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