Friday, September 4, 2020

Ishiguro Again Shows His Mastery: Never Let Me Go

This past week I've been wholly captivated by yet another Ishiguro marvel, Never Let Me Go.

What is it that gives Kazuo Ishiguro's writing such power? Perhaps it's his patience in laying out the story and developing such vivid characters. Perhaps it's the gravity, though we as readers are not even certain what that force behind the story really is. Perhaps it's the manner in which the stories are told, in which you know that there are things the characters don't know, but then you don't really know either.

The above paragraph reminds me of an exercise in John Gardner's On Becoming A Novelist in which the writer is asked to describe a pond. There is a dead body hidden from view, so it is a serious scene, but the writer has to create the feeling only through describing what is seen.

Ishiguro clearly has become masterful at conveying this kind of undertone without ever explicitly stating it. "Show, don't tell" is one of the first dictum's fiction writers hear at writer's conferences, and this author does it ever so well.

Perhaps its the manner in which these situations he creates unearth painful revelations within ourselves is another aspect of his writing that makes it so potent. I think that right there is a big part of it. Or at least for me. As our narrator Kath tells the story, which consists of strings of interconnected narratives about various people, it seems as if she is striving to resolve what was really going on, things she'd not fully grasped as she experienced them.

So it is that I have remembrances come to mind, instances in which I behaved badly, or failed to speak up, or spoke and should have kept silent. Little did I know that some of these moments would become critical turning points in relationships that once were meaningful.

Friendship and loss, memories and revelations, loneliness and meaning--these are key themes in Never Let Me Go.


There's something special about the students living at Hailsham, a boarding school in England. At first we don't know what's so special about this school, and neither do the children who grow up there, but eventually a little light streams in and we learn that these children are here for a purpose.

The three main characters in Never Let Me Go are Kath, Tommy and Ruth. These characters are drawn with such detail that you can almost hear them breathing and recognize their fingerprints. Ruth's manipulations are ever so annoying, and Tommy's struggles create such empathy that you lose yourself in Kathy's meandering reflections on the key moments they have shared both at Hailsham and afterwards.

Any number of thoughts come to mind here, one of them being the manner in which a family secret comes to light after it has been suppressed for many years. I'm thinking of a child born of incest, who never realizes why he has no father but eventually senses, then learns, that it's his grandfather.

In this story, the children of Hailsham were part of a program to clone humans who would grow up to become organ donors. As young adults they give until they do not survive. It can be two, three or four, but eventually you give your body parts till you are "complete," which is a euphemism for death.

It's no wonder that a pall hangs over everyone's tale of self-discovery. How the characters respond to these revelations, often nothing more than rumors because the teachers of Hailsham are limited in what they can openly disclose, is the heart of this story.

Eventually the students leave Hailsham and move to the Cottages. From here they become Carers, and then Donors. Some lucky ones will have a chance to get deferrals for a couple years before entering that Donor stage. This is another undercurrent in the story of this threesome.

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The title of the novel, "Never Let Me Go," is taken from a late 1950's song by Judy Bridgewater, recorded on her album Songs After Dark. Judy Bridgewater and this song recur several times as events unfold involving Tommy, Ruth and Kath.

I love Ishiguro's writing. There's a beauty in the way he digs into the nuances of relationships. Here's a sentence that illustrates this. Kath is reflecting on an incident which seemed insignificant at thee time, but was not.

It was like when you make a move in chess and just as you take your finger off the piece, you see the mistake you've made, and there's this panic because you don't know yet the scale of disaster you've left yourself open to.

Hailsham seem's like an interesting choice for the name of the school. The student clones are shams, not real humans in a sense. This particular school, though, is an elite version of this system of cloning humans to become organs donors, so it is "hailed" by clones who went to other schools. Some time after Kathy, Ruth and Tommy have graduated, however, the school gets closed, no doubt for a sea change in public opinion about the ethics of this business.

Lots of food for thought throughout, and an engaging read as well. 5 stars out of 5.

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Related Links
Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled Is an Achievement of the First Order
In Awe of Ishiguro's The Buried Giant
Throwback Thursday: Ishiguro On Dylan
  For what it's worth, here's a link to the Judy Bridgewater song:

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