Don’t read this review if you haven’t read the book- read the book! It’s 11/10 amazingness, and I’d recommend to it anyone.
When you read a lot of good books, and see a lot of good movies, it’s easy to resort to hyperbole, and not mean what you say. Indeed, when reviewing anything it’s hard not to resort to those general exclamations of approval. Yet as we all know, they say little about the reviewer, and less about the work in question. With this caveat aside, however, I’d like to start by saying this is one of the most shocking and moving novels I’ve ever read. What’s profound is the effect it has on you as you turn the pages. For example, the narrative, early on at Hailsham, takes a slight turn that feels unnatural, hints at something dark and sinister beneath the surface, and a shudder goes down your spine. Then, as the tale reaches its somewhat inevitable conclusion, you grasp at straws hoping that where its going isn’t exactly where you fear it is. In a way, it reminds me of Iain Bank’s Wasp Factory- for the stunning but shocking effect it has when you realise the horror in the tale.
The novel is based around three friends, growing up in similar surroundings and reacting to the changing world around them in different ways. The first person narrative gives you Kathy’s take on the other main characters, Ruth and Tommy. As such, its only towards the end- maybe only after you finish, and think back on it – that you realise some of the more poignant sadness that underlies the tale: Kathy and Tommy truly were in love, but never admitted it until it was very late (The Remains of the Day, anyone?). The gradual revelation of little details proceeds as Kathy herself realises them- the minute revelation quickening your turning of the pages. I found myself poring over the text, searching for clues, for information- towards the end of the novel I re-read portions three or four times before moving on.
The title, as with Ishiguro’s other work Remains, has multiple meanings. Its a powerful title in all of its contexts- Kathy, Ruth and Tommy clinging to each other as they have no family, no mothers and fathers. Kathy and Tommy’s love. Their isolation, from the world in which they live- they see a society of which they will never be a part. Their fear at the completely inevitable- the purpose for which they were made, something that at no point they attempt to fight. This is what moves Never Let Me Go away from sci-fi – despite the general theme, it’s hard to know how much of this novel is a parable, and how much of it should be taken as ‘real’. I mean, why would this horrific situation be allowed to develop? This is a dark, dark version of our reality indeed. It’s a testament to the sheer quality of writing in this book that I found myself shaking my head at this question, even though none of this is real. I suppose one could criticise on these grounds- that for all the sadness and cruelty, why don’t the main characters just attempt to run away? The ‘world’ of the novel is not the focus, and little details of the practicalities of this alternative world are revealed. I also found the first person narrative slightly flat at times- similar perhaps to Remains, although there it fit with the character of an elderly butler. Here the sections on love, and particularly references to sex, are more descriptive than evocative, and a more passionate arousal of emotions of all kinds could have presented the disparity between the personal ‘soul’, and the soulless life handed to the characters, in more stark contrast. Maybe this is a weakness of Ishiguro – it reminds me also of the rather disappointing When We Were Orphans, the only other book of his I’ve read.
M John Harrison writes in the Guardian – So what is Never Let Me Go really about? It’s about the steady erosion of hope. It’s about repressing what you know, which is that in this life people fail one another, grow old and fall to pieces. It’s about knowing that while you must keep calm, keeping calm won’t change a thing. Beneath Kathy’s flattened and lukewarm emotional landscape lies the pure volcanic turmoil, the unexpressed yet perfectly articulated, perfectly molten rage of the orphan. The poignant moment when Kathy holds the pillow close to her and dances alone to music, beneath the glare of one who knows her fate, captures the title in an image. Is it immense sadness that she has no parents, will never have children, or will never ‘live’ in the world in which she lives? Or is it just that she it clinging on to her life, moment by moment, clinging onto memories, and more than all of that, clinging on to her two friends – Kathy and Tommy – as hope, bit by bit and indeed one by one, disappears. Never let me go. But she is let go by them, and in the end she leaves, to go to where she was ‘supposed to be’- a profoundly upsetting end to a novel that will stay with me long after I turned the last page.