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Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me GoThe Remains of the Day is one of my favourite novels. I loved everything about it; the characters, the stuffy yet vulnerable Stevens, the setting in that transition period between an older way of life and modernity, the beautifully crafted, formal prose tinged with humour, the poignant undercurrents of emotion. Maybe that’s why my disappointment with Never Let me Go was so great.

There are many similarities between the two novels; both have a first person narrator whose reminiscences form the bulk of the novel, both deal with wasted lives and lost opportunities, both narrators are trapped in a social construct from which they are unable to escape and hence fail to seize an opportunity for love which presents itself. But where Stevens is totally believable, Kathy is unsubstantial, where Stevens’ predicament is heartbreakingly understandable, Kathy’s is implausible, where The Remains of the Day is poignant, Never Let me Go is irritating.

Warning:If you haven’t read this book but you intend to, then maybe you might like to stop reading now as some spoilers may follow.

The novel is set in an alternative, contemporary England and is narrated by Kathy H., a thirty-one year old carer. The facts behind Kathy’s existence leak out as the novel progresses, not because Kathy is deliberately concealing any information but because she assumes the reader is aware of the context and doesn’t need to be told.

We learn that Kathy was raised in a progressive kind of orphanage/boarding-school, Hailsham, of which she has very fond memories. Since leaving the school she has become the carer for, among others, two of her closest friends from that time: Ruth and Tommy. At the end of this year she will cease being a carer and will progress to being a donor. In fact, Kathy and her friends are clones produced for the sole purpose of producing vital organs for transplantation.

At Hailsham, the truth about their future was not exactly concealed from the students but neither was it fully spelt out. They were encouraged, indeed obliged, to produce works of art from an early age, the best of which are chosen by Madame, a regular visitor and taken away to a mysterious Gallery. At sixteen they leave Hailsham and move out to the Colleges, other, more basic accommodation until they are ready to take on their roles as carers for donors who undergo several donations until they ‘complete’. The final stage of the process is to become a donor too.

Factual details are very sparse possibly because of the tenuous basis on which the novel is built. We find out very little about the cloning process, the donation procedures or even the administration behind the system. I couldn’t help wondering what ‘vital organs’ a person could donate four times without dying or even why it was useful to keep them alive between operations. Why not do a clear-out in one fell swoop and be done with it?

Once out of Hailsham, the students are relatively free in their movements; once, Kathy and four other students borrow a car to drive to Norfolk in an attempt to find a ‘possible’ for Ruth, the original from which she was cloned. Yet it doesn’t seem to occur to any of the hundreds of students to try to run away, escape or rebel in any way although they are all aware that they are doomed to die before thirty. This possibility is never discussed throughout the novel and this felt false to me.

It could be argued that the mechanics of the system is not the point of the novel, that the interaction of the characters in this extreme situation is, but even on this level it fails to deliver. Much of the novel deals with the analysis of minute shifts in the relationships between the main characters, and of shadings of the atmosphere against the backdrop of their destiny and although this could have been interesting I found it became excessive and wearing.

The characters of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy lacked development and never came to life for me. Such things as the role of art in their lives was treated very superficially with no insight of any sort. Even the prose is dull, unimaginative and repetitive.

“…the both of us, Tommy and I, we remembered what had happened in the car, when we’d more or less ganged up on her.”

16 lines later

“… or if he was remembering again our ganging up on Ruth in the car.”

9 lines later

“it wasn’t simply that we’d ganged up on Ruth.’

Consistency with the character’s voice is no defence for tediousness, at least not in my court. However, if anyone is interested in presenting a case for the defence I’d be glad to hear it.

Faber and Faber; New Ed edition (2 Mar 2006) (orig. 2005) 276 pp. ISBN-10: 057122413X

14 comments on “Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

  1. Mhairi
    November 13, 2007

    Interesting review. I loved “Remains”, too. I’d like to hear what other people who have read “Never Let Me Go” think.

  2. Leena
    November 13, 2007

    Interesting review, Mary. I read this book some time ago… I think the narrative style with its repetitiveness might have got on my nerves had I been in a different (worse) mood, but as it was, I just thought it sounded like an ordinary person talking about her life and didn’t think too much about it. As for the rest of your points… it’s funny, but I agree on all of them, and yet I loved the book. Or perhaps ‘loved’ is the wrong word. No book in a long time has made me feel so thoroughly, overwhelmingly sad.

    I assume the spoiler-wary won’t have got this far, but just in case: ***HERE BE SPOILERS***

    Yes, the scenario was tenuous. I too kept wondering why the student didn’t even try to escape (though presumably they weren’t as free as they believed themselves to be: it would be quite difficult just to disappear in this day and age, and it would call for a level of organisation and resources the students would have lacked).

    But I must confess that once I was well into the book, I didn’t think any more about it because I took the whole organ-donation thing to be a more general metaphor for death and resignation. After all, we all know that we’re going to die one day, and just like the students at Hailsham, we prefer not to think about it. I don’t remember all the details, but when they were 18 or so, didn’t the students put their trust in the far-fetched, mythical possibility of a postponement for couples who are ‘truly’ in love? They kept on believing that something miraculous might happen to change their fate further along the way, so they pushed the whole thing out of their minds. I think it’s very true that human beings are programmed to clutch at any excuse to cover their ears and go ‘la la la, I’m not listening’ if they possibly can.

    I haven’t read ‘The Remains of the Day’ yet – though it’s in my pile right now! – but I’ve seen the film, and I’d say that whereas TROTD seems to be about being trapped in a socially constructed role, NLMG is about being trapped in a mortal body that’s entirely wasted on the young. And that’s why I found it so sad. The circumstances keeping Tom and Kathy apart when they were younger were so trivial and stupid, but of course they don’t realise it until it’s far too late, and by that time you – and they – begin to wonder what difference it could possibly have made to get those few years of happiness if it’s all going to end in suffering and death anyway. I don’t know… I’ve always felt that the essence of love (not just romantic love) is regret – whether it’s regret that you didn’t realise it earlier, or regret that you’ve never had it, or regret that you’ve had it all these years but it’s going to end one day. Just regret, regardless of its nature. I thought the title encapsulated the whole thing beautifully… how you only begin to hold on desperately once you’ve already begun to let go.

  3. Jackie
    November 13, 2007

    Though I’ve read all of Ishiguro’s other novels, I’ve avoided this one because it’s so drastically different. It sounds more like sci fi. The premise has been explored before, in movies such as “The Island”, so I wonder why the author felt the need to wander so far from his usual territory?
    Leena, I must say your comments on love & regret are quite poignant and poetic. Wow.

  4. Ariadne
    November 13, 2007

    Yes, good review, and expanded by Leena’s thoughtful comments. I am keen to read this for myself, now.

  5. lisaonsea
    November 13, 2007

    Dammit, I could only skim the first two paragraphs as I haven’t read this novel yet and it’s lurking on my bookcase somewhere. Will come back and read your review the moment I’ve turned that last page!

  6. marygm
    November 14, 2007

    Yes, good defence there, Leena. And very crafty of you to accept all my criticisms but to move the debate on to another arena. LOL.

    Not sure I’ll have time now to address all your comments but I’m not sure I agree about the organ donor thing being a metaphor for ‘death and resignation’. One of the things that surprises me about human beings is how dearly we cling to life rather than resign ourselves to death. Yes, we know that death will come but we do our best to push that deadline as far away as possible. Even people for whom death is inevitable and for whom life is tortuous eg someone dying of suffocation in an enclosed space, someone dying of hunger or even a down-and-out who lives in terrible conditions will do everything they can to gain extra time. Even in this novel the ‘ordinary’ people are, after all, prepared to produce other human beings and kill them for their organs in order to gain time and delay the arrival of death. It didn’t seem real to me that the ‘clones’ would accept death with so little protest. (Is Ishiguro implying that they are somehow ‘lesser’? In which case this would give me even deeper reservations about the novel.) They could have run away and gained some time or they could have barricaded themselves in but none of these possibilities was voiced by even one of them.

    Your comments about love and regret are poetic and thoughtful but I question if we can limit your thinking to love. I think all the wonderful things in life, love included, are shadowed by the knowledge that one day death will bring them to an end, whether that be the beauty of nature, the pleasure got from reading, sport, music, a funny incident shared with a stranger etc. And from personal experience I think that knowing the end is nigh makes one cling on even more desperately and each moment becomes precious where it might have been squandered before.

  7. Jenn
    November 14, 2007

    I am a big Ishiguro fan and looked forward to this novel’s release, but like some of you, I too found it a disapointment. I didn’t feel sufficiently engaged with the characters to care about their disapointments and failures (not the case with all of Ishiguro’s other wonderful narrators) and found the bland prose a world away from the duplicituous, shadowy, economical-yet-rich voices of his other narrators. I found the scenes that were perhaps intended to have some kind of emotional import (Kathy dancing with the pillow to the music, the disapointment at her and Tommy’s final visit to Madame) to be straining for an effect that they didn’t achieve. The passive, almost emotionless retelling of events didn’t help, and the total lack of credibility (yes – why didn’t they escape? They weren’t recognised as clones on their visit to Norfolk so could have blended in well enough?) was a constant stumbling block. The most interesting parts of this book exist, for me, only as potential stories on the periphery – the world outside Hailsham, the campaign to prove that clones had souls, the inner lives of Tommy and Ruth – were all more compelling than the meandering narrative of Kathy, but elided in a book that, if it wasn’t for the wonderful A Pale View of Hills and The Unconsoled, would have put me off Ishiguro for life.

  8. katelong
    November 15, 2007

    I rate this novel as one of my all-time top twenty favourites. I hadn’t read any Ishiguro before, but this book touched me very deeply and has stayed with me – in fact, I’m going to have to read it again now I’ve seen it reviewed.

    The way the central characters remain almost child-like, wrapped up in their tiny social concerns, seemed to me to be both a result of the way they were brought up, and a wholly realistic coping mechanism. I was more drawn to them *because* they told their stories so simply and dispassionately. In the end I found it heartbreaking.

    ‘We need to be damn careful as a society what we’re prepared to accept’, was the moral I took away with me – this isn’t a story set in the future, it’s a parallel present. What’s going on today in the field of ethical science that needs watching intently?

  9. Leena
    November 20, 2007

    I’ve been wondering how to reply, Mary, and I’m afraid I’ve got to give up on trying to argue my case for NLMG, as my response to it was so purely emotional (I like Kate’s comments, though!). But as for death and resignation – see, I think it probably differs from person to person, though my experience is admittedly limited. I know – or rather knew – somebody who died from cancer, and while she clung to life desperately, she certainly did not cling to love. Anger and bitterness kept her going; she’d been a cheerful, affectionate person but before her death she told her friends she wishes they would one day experience her pain. Also – again, in my limited experience – some people seem simply to give up, even if there’s a small chance of survival, but it no longer seems worth fighting for. And once they give up, they start pushing people away and love seems to become meaningless. My guess is that for most people there comes a moment when they’re alone with their own impending death, and this is why the novel felt so powerful to me. But, yes, the younger clones did accept their fate rather too easily to my liking.

  10. ryan
    December 2, 2007

    I think I “understood” this book. I had to read it for discussion in my college class. yes, I understand how Ishiguro’s restrained style speaks to the restrained lives of the characters. Yes, i understand that they dont focus on donations much because they’d rather not dwell on it. But that doent make up for the fact that the book is very boring. All style and no substance, to borrow an oft-used phrase.

    The story felt too bare to be credible. There are NO clones who resist? Not a single one? And like someone said above, if they feel love and anger why not fear their fate? I suppose the argument here kis that they are conditioned in a way as not to care, but then this still makes Kathy to be a very dull character. And theres no resistance? I thought of how people test animals now, kill them for our own purposes..seen as less than human. a fair comparison yes? And Im not an animal right just seemed a similar situation. well, most people seem to say “Its for our good” like in the book. but to have no resistance? even with animals theres groups like PETA, freeing animals from cages. shouldnt there be some guerilla movement breaking into Hailsham?

    Kathy and her friends seem desparate at the end, but its not like they really tried to avoid being donors. Let’s go talk to madame..ok, i guess thats all we can do.. again, their passivity is strange and makes you wonder about how different they are from people, but i cant say it makes for an interesting book.

  11. Kirsty
    December 7, 2008

    Personally, I preferred Never Let Me Go to Remains of the Day. The basis of the novel, though unlikely, is plausible. I found the narration interesting, although perhaps it was monotonous, simply because the reader was always one step behind the narrator, so reading the novel was like piecing together a jigsaw.

    Also, the reason the donors do not escape is given to the reader, by Tommy: They don’t know anything else. His theory is that the guardians tell them the facts just before they can understand them fully, so they always know what’s going on. This takes away the risk of them escaping.

    The reason ordinary people don’t fight for the freedom of the clones, or for them to stop being donors, etc, is simply that they don’t realise what is happening. The reader is told that the general public is led to believe that the donors are test-tube kept, unthinking, not human at all, beings. The reader is not under this impression only because of the point of view the novel is told in, we are led to empathise with Kathy and the others. Had it been one of the guardians, or perhaps Madame, it would be completely different. Even these people are disgusted by the clones, simply by the idea of them, despite having lived side-by-side with them for years. They see the injustice of what’s going on, yet it doesn’t go any further than this.

    Again, the fact that we know the background behind the donations is assumed, but the whole basis of the novel wouldn’t work if the donations were taken at once, and, though it is clear that some people think this is a clumsy way of dealing with the background to the novel, I think it keeps in with the style of the rest of the novel, and this didn’t cross my mind as I read the book. Telling other information, such as the cloning process, would also make the reader weary. The fact that these facts are omitted makes the book interesting and the comment Ishiguro is making more poignant.

    I am actually writing a dissertation o the narrative techniques used in this novel and “Remains of the Day”. To what extent can we trust the narrator? Both keep their own feelings, such as Kathy’s feelings for Tommy, hidden from the reader, though we can guess the truth. I find this a fascinating study of human nature. Ishiguro, being originally from Japan, can study the nature of the relationships and the behaviour of people. The fact that he grew up in a Japanese family, and yet can see the nature of British life, allows him to be objective in his view of human behaviour.

  12. Hannah
    December 1, 2009

    I understand that in ‘Never Let Me Go’ it is very frustrating that the possibility of atleast ONE clone rebelling is not explored, yet perhaps the characters cannot comprehend rebellion since they have not experienced another way of life? In the history of humanity we have rebelled due to changes in our society or the improvement of another nation above our own, yet the students are unaware of a time without clones.

  13. Frank F
    September 19, 2011

    Spoiler alert, almost from the beginning. I have to admit to an agenda. My girlfriend gave me this book to read. It is one of her favourites and Ishiguro one of her favourite authors. She studied him as part of a creative writing course. I am not trying to win an argument with said girlfriend but merely to build a critical argument that alternative views are valid. There are many interesting perspectives in the review and the comments above.

    I didn’t enjoy the book for some of the reasons given above. The main difficulty is that the characters are boring and have boring lives. The fact that they are clones and will become organ donors doesn’t automatically make them interesting. It is very difficult to care about what happens to them. The setting in 1970s UK is a serious problem and makes the setup unconvincing. Why would a writer not set the novel in the future? Possibly because Ishiguro is not a science fiction writer and does not have the kind of imagination to develop an alternative society from scratch.

    If an implausible setting is an attempt at a genre-bust the novel fails on many levels and to bust a genre you have to understand the genre. The parallel universe still needs a plausible political economy. If a society is scientifically advanced enough to clone a living human then presumably they could grow organs from stem cells, which would be much more efficient. Secondly, the medical-industrial complex that we have is already advanced enough to allow most people to live to an unwelcome age of dementia, crippling arthritis, strokes etc, none of which can be “treated” by organ donation. Children can donate to adults, so there is no point in waiting until the clones reach adulthood. Some donors, who weren’t a good match for any potential recipients, might live until their fifties. Donating an organ, such as a kidney, does not require months of recuperation so the rest homes and carers are redundant. Using future donors as carers, perhaps as part of a “softening up” process to make them compliant when their turn comes, is highly implausible unless we accept that the clones are not like other humans (that they are like other humans is a point that the novel appears to be making) since the donations are described as traumatic. It is completely impossible that this system could be kept secret (as some reviewers have suggested) and, in any case, the raison d’etre of Hailsham was to “prove” that the clones were like other people and did have souls, so the existence of donor clones must have been common knowledge, otherwise such arguments would be unnecessary. While all these may be regarded as quibbles, the narrative style of reportage is completely at odds with the counterfactual set up and this makes the novel very jarring.

    The issue of rebellion is also a problem as indicated by others. Almost always in history (I can’t think of contrary examples) when the majority (or more powerful) oppress a minority (colonisation, slavery, class conflict) this goes hand in hand with an ideology of inferiority. Apart from the question of souls, this ideology is not well developed. Granted, the narrator may not have been aware of this ideology, though the clones were presumably free to read newspapers and watch TV. Furthermore, oppression is again always coupled with mistreatment and an apparatus of surveillance and control. The oppressed are always strictly confined. This is particular important if the donors need to keep healthy. If they really were cloned from drug addicts and other “low-lifes”, as the book implied, they would be genetically predisposed to alcoholism and drug-addiction and could not be allowed to roam free. Again, in history, the repressed and exploited are well aware that they are being exploited, as the facts of their lives speak for themselves, and they invariably rebel, or at least a significant minority do.

    So in my opinion, the novel can only be regarded as an allegory but an allegory of what? It is certainly not an allegory of the human condition in general as the clones are a particular group who are treated differently from the majority. However, their passivity is a common human trait, although most of us aren’t passive our entire lives. (On reflection, this is why the characters are boring – because they are passive, there is almost no conflict in the novel).

    After some pondering, the allegory can only refer to groups in society who are socialised to willingly sacrifice themselves for the good of others, while at the same time being exploited. This does not apply to slaves or the underclass but could apply to females in patriarchal societies (though they too, resist). It could also apply to, significantly, kamikaze pilots, suicide bombers and perhaps military personel, in general. Though, these sacrifices are in response to an external threat, whether real or manufactured. Without an external threat such sacrifices are one’s which human beings rarely make.

    This allegory seems to me to be a very tenuous basis for a dull novel. Allegory is a very tricky thing to pull off. While Ishiguro may be a great writer (I haven’t read anything else he has written) it doesn’t mean that he will always succeed.

    Books/films which have related themes:

    A Tale of Two Cities
    Blade Runner
    Animal Farm
    The Diary of Anne Frank
    Burnt by the Sun

  14. francis
    July 15, 2014

    Just finished the book and I was greatly, deeply moved and disturbed. I think people will still be talking about this book centuries from now. To me, most of the comments miss the point of the book.
    Why don’t the characters revolt? What do you expect, some kind of a gunfight or pursuit in the woods? The novel is so riveting because the awful stuff is just there, and the reader is left to himself to judge; you are left in the situation of a nightmare, where you can neither run or scream or do anything when faced with horror.
    The subject of cloning: if the book was just saying we shouldn’t breed humans to later use them as spare parts, then it wouldn’t have much relevance. What is deeply relevant is that it echoes all the inconvenient moral and life issues we prefer to avoid thinking about. Yes, we will grow old, a bit later than the characters in the book, but surely enough. Yes we will probably writhe in pain, with a flash of consciousness as we die. And yes, people do suffer in sweatshops, and animals are ill-treated to insure the comfort of our way of life.

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This entry was posted on November 13, 2007 by in Entries by Mary, Fiction: fantasy, Fiction: literary and tagged , , , .



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