As children, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules where teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were. Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life, and for the first time she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them special–and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together.
This is the type of book where I think its best if you don’t look at any reviews before reading. You have to experience it for yourself. It’s a book that can’t quite be captured by a simple review and it is likely that you will be mislead and thinks its something that its not. And, if you find a more detailed review, it’ll likely contain spoilers as almost anything you say about Never Let Me Go can be viewed as a spoiler. Unless you’ve already read the book or don’t mind some minor spoilers, I suggest you return here after you’ve read it. Oh and also, if you feel a bit slowed down by the stories of the kids at Hailsham or can’t connect with any of the characters, keep reading – it only all made sense to me at the end.
This is my first book by Ishiguro so I can’t comment on whether this is simply his writing style, but I really enjoyed the way Never Let Me Go is constructed. It’s quite unlike any other novel I’ve read before. Kathy, who is narrating the story is talking to a certain ‘you’, telling her story. But, it reads almost like stream of consciousness. Apart from being organized chronologically, one story leads to another, going off on tangents. As a new memory is brought up, Kathy provides the appropriate back story and also places it on an appoximate time line. Yet, at the same time, there is definitely some thought put into which memories are shared, and they all tie to the central plot of the story. It’s not like the standard adult-reflecting-on-past story, where they tell a full story from start to finish with no major gaps. Yet, it’s also not just a haze of memories. No, it’s somewhere between the two.
Another interesting thing I noticed about the storytelling is that Kathy is talking to someone who is living in the same world she is. As a result, nothing is really explained. Places and events require a lot of reading between the lines to construct. But it’s more than that too. Even the people in Kathy’s life aren’t really described beyond what needs to be. You are given very few physical descriptions, and the connections between characters are only explained so events will make sense. Through Kathy’s memories you come to know of them through their personalities, but you don’t really ever know much beyond that.
Usually, upon finishing a novel, especially one that is in first person, if the characters are well constructed you leave with the ability to imagine the characters in other situations and can wonder what would ‘so-and-so-do’? Yet this is not the case. Kathy isn’t telling a story about herself or her friends, she is more telling a story describing what is was like at Hailsham and about how she slowly uncovered the mystery surrounding their lives. The characters are only there for the purposes of the story. Yet, even with the barest understanding of characters, Never Let Me Go reminds you of childhood, of friendships and first loves. It portrays vengeful frenemies, bullies, and the tumultuous teenage experience.
Kathy, along with Tommy and to a degree Ruth, seek to to uncover and understand their mysterious lives. What beings with a childish wish to uncover secret conspiracies, develops into a wish to find meaning in their lives and understand themselves. Slowly, they begin to piece together the puzzle. While reading, as things begin to slide into place, you never have a big ‘aha!’ moment, rather you go, ‘oh that makes sense’. Like the characters, you feel as if you knew it all along because it is hinted at occasionally right from the beginning of the novel. Kathy puts emphasis on certain events over others and is continually saying that she doesn’t know if that’s how it actually was or if she’s only putting it that way in light of later events.
Ultimately Never Let Me Go asks you to ponder the point of living and creating and learning if you’re just going to die. It asks you about what is means to be human and the nature of humanity. And the link between art and humanity. It also makes you question how much control you really have over your life. The ‘students’ almost happily resign themselves to their fate and never really try to do anything to change it. Do we also just live our lives by what’s expected of us as the next step? You’re also left to wonder about the way people tend to exploit other people (think of the clothing industry for example) and prefer to simply not think about the harm they are causing to others.
P.S. In case you wanted to hear it, here is the song that lend the book it’s title (it’s actually not bad 🙂 )