I know, I keep doing this. Wasting your precious time to grab you by the shoulders and say, “You know that book that has been critically acclaimed for years, that has been made into a film which by all accounts is highly enjoyable, which you have almost certainly read or seen or even pressed upon me? I deem that book to be very good.”
Reader, I deem Never Let Me Go to be very good.
Legit spoiler warning though. I’m not going to go into too much detail, but you should go into this one as pure as you can.
I somehow managed to blunder my way into Never Let Me Go with only the vaguest ideas of The Spoiler, but those vague ideas were bang on the money so I won’t be able to describe fully the experience of going into it blind and realising what’s going on, unfortunately. Any spoilers I did accumulate were purely of my own doing – I remember looking the book up out of curiosity, assuming it wouldn’t matter or I wouldn’t get around to reading it or that I’d forget by the time I did get around to it. Nonsense. Past-me, you are an idiot. I will never trust you again.
The only other Ishiguro I’ve read was The Remains of the Day, which, though it may appear to be the exact opposite of Never Let Me Go (sad butlers in the real world v dystopian boarding school children*) nonetheless shares something of the shape. Ishiguro writes again convincingly of memories and how we’re shaped by them – how we shape them – and evokes again the sense of something lost (though totally different things, of course). He writes about the minutiae of everyday life and gets away with it not only because his writing is so accomplished but because these are everyday lives we are not familiar with, and because behind the comfortable banality there’s always something bigger lurking, and we want to catch a glimpse.
I was a great reader of boarding school fiction when I was young, and some of that fascination has obviously stayed with me. Other people have probably explained it better than I ever could – is it the parentlessness of it, having people your own age around you in the dark hours, belonging to an exclusive club? Who knows. Never Let Me Go takes the micro-society of boarding schools even further, as these are children without any parents, whose only contact with the outside world is through adults who mostly live in the boarding school themselves, whose very possessions are often created by the community, who create their own art with as little outside influence as possible. It’s amazing worldbuilding.
Even the characters’ emotions, meticulously described and speculated and analysed by the narrator, Kathy, are full and real and complex and fit perfectly with the awful world they live in. They have their own cultures, subcultures, rules and mindsets. It’s a full society, a bubble in the society we assume is going on around them (namely, our own society, which appears to be mostly going on as before).
There are lots of connections to make, for those who like that kind of thing. The loss of childhood innocence is the obvious one, but I felt a bit like it was cruel to take such a light lesson from Kathy, Ruth and Tommy’s story – which is nonsense, of course! They’re not real. But I still felt it. I mean, we all grow up and lose that innocence, and yes it’s hard, and I suppose if you were being clever you could say we die of it, even, but it feels a bit melodramatic.
Finding out the secret behind the idyllic boarding school (especially compared with the vague dark hints of other, more nightmarish, places) felt somehow relevant too, outlining the fragility of progress and the lightness of simply expending effort to do the right thing against the weight of the world (not the natural world, but the very human-created system that many humans passively allow if not actively maintain).
And over that, larger and fainter, the exploitation that’s necessary for us to maintain the lifestyles to which we are accustomed. As the book is focused on Kathy’s life and memories, there isn’t much time or space given to the people outside the system, who choose to look away from the exploitation they benefit from, but more than that – their looking away takes the form of ever more brutal exploitation.
They say all the best sci fi tells us not about the future or fantastic reaches of the imagination, but ourselves.
*OK, actually not that opposite – both books take place in a sort of nostalgic rural England and draws heavily on those very misty-eyed trappings of gentility that we associate with it, namely stately houses and their butlers, and cosy, idyllic boarding schools.