Dec 21, 2009

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

If you have not yet read Never Let Me Go, then I’m afraid I can’t tell you what it’s about. I can say it’s a dystopia, that it’s set in an alternate modern-day England, and that the narrator, Kathy, is reminiscing about her childhood at an idyllic boarding school named Hailsham. Or at least that’s what she seems to be doing. But I really can’t say more, because I suspect that the least you know, the greatest the impact of this book will be. I say “suspect” because sadly, after years of successfully avoiding spoilers, I read a one paragraph blurb in a list of reading recommendations that gave away everything. Dear internet: no major spoilers in plot synopses please? But anyway, the good news is that I still absolutely loved Never Let Me Go.

First of all, a warning: I’m not going to include any outright spoilers in this post, but to talk about why I loved the book so much I’m going to have to hint at things. And it’s likely that my hints will allow you to put two and two together, so proceed at your own risk!

I really loved Kathy’s voice. Ishiguro has done it again. Kathy is very different from Stevens from The Remains of the Day, but I think both are brilliant narrators in somewhat similar ways. In a way, Never Let Me Go is also a book about relationships and transience; about silence and regret. What Ishiguro does so well is to make everything completely understated and yet incredibly moving and impossible to ignore. Kathy’s social world is dominated by unspoken things, by subtle connections, by feelings that remain covert for far too long. As she looks back on her life, she actually acknowledges this and explains the perceived meaning of interactions that were never openly discussed. And the reader, as an outside observer, can tell just what went wrong in terms of communication.

The story focuses as much on Kathy as it does on Ruth and Tommy, her two best friends. The strength of Kathy’s connection with Tommy in particular is obvious from the very beginning, yet they only discuss it far into the book. The result of this is that when things are finally out in the open, they are bittersweet and tinged with regret. And this made me so immensely sad.

(Warning: particularly spoiler-y paragraph.) But the saddest thing of all about Never Let Me Go is the deferral rumour, and the answer that Kathy and Tommy are finally given. Of course, even if it had been positive, it would only have bought them a few more years, but that extra time matters so much that we almost forget this. What I found particularly brilliant was the fact that their quest and their faith in the rumour were remarkable alike what we do in our non-dystrophic world; what we seek and what we believe in—and this is especially striking considering that Madame tells them that the rumour seems to begin again spontaneously even if they deny it. We’re all after more time, and we’re more than willing to embrace ideas that suggest that we will be given it. Even the whole... system that allowed Kathy and Tommy and Ruth to exist in the first place is all about deferrals; about postponing the inevitable, about gaining time. There’s something very human about this, and very moving too.

I’m mostly focusing on characters and relationships here because that was what impressed me the most, but there’s also, of course everything else that’s not being said; all the things about the world where the novel is set; all that we don’t know because Kathy doesn’t know it. And though they’re only hinted at, they speak loud and clear. Never Let Me Go raises questions about identity, about how much people will accept if only they’re raised to believe that a horrifying reality is natural and inevitable, and about how willing we are to dehumanize others if it proves to be convenient.

The premise behind Never Let Me Go is shocking and horrifying, yes, but, perhaps because the book was spoiled for me, I skipped being horrified and jumped right into being sad. And that’s how I felt for days after I finished this book, and how I still feel if I think about it: filled with a quiet sadness and with regret.

Favourite passages:
And though we just kept on walking, we all felt it; it was like we’d walked from the sun right into chilly shade. Ruth had been right: Madame was afraid of us. But she was afraid of us in the same way someone might be afraid of spiders. We hadn’t been ready for that. It had never occurred to us to wonder how we would feel, being seen like that, being the spiders.

It couldn’t last, of course, but like I say, just for those few months, we somehow managed to live in this cosy state of suspension in which we could ponder our lives without the usual boundaries. Looking back now, it feels like we spent ages in that steamed-up kitchen after breakfast, or huddled around half-dead fires in the small hours, lost in conversation about our plans for the future.

‘I keep thinking about this river somewhere, with the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold on to each other, holding on as fast as they can, but in the end it’s just too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, drift apart. That’s how I think it is with us. It’s a shame, Kath, because we’ve loved each other all our lives. But in the end, we can’t stay together forever.’
They Read it too:
Raging Bibliomania, Stuff as Dreams are Made On, Reading Through the Night, Kay’s Bookshelf, Shelf Love, The Zen Leaf, Becky’s Book Reviews, Stuck in a Book, Save Ophelia, books i done read, Trish’s Reading Nook, S. Krishna’s Books, Care’s Online Bookclub, Books of Mee, DogEar Diary, Vulpe Libris

(I’m sure I missed a ton of them. Apologies in advance, and if you leave me your link I’ll be happy to add it.)

44 comments:

  1. I avoided the spoilery paragraph since I've never read this and you've got me wanting to. It doesn't hurt that the protagonist is named Kathy. :-)

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  2. I really enjoyed this book. It was so sad and now I don't even properly remember how it ended. I do remember the language being so sparse. And that Ishiguro's charcters would always say, "having sex" instead of any other description of the act (making love, sleeping together, etc), which made it seem very scientific to me. Not sure if that's what he was going for but it emphasized that part to me.

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  3. You got me at dystopian. How I love a dystopian novel and I only realised this throughout my first year of blogging. I have read this or The Remains of the Day, but both will now go on my list.

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  4. I tried to read it in English last year, but couldn't make it to the end. Last month I picked it up at the library and read the whole thing again. Loved it!

    I think you would also enjoy Gemma Malley's "The Declaration". (At least, I don't think you've read it already, but I could be wrong, of course). It's another dystopian novel, written with a YA audience in mind I think, but still very good.

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  5. Glad you liked it Ana. This was my least favourite Ishiguro (and I did also like it a lot), which can only mean the rest of his other books are that good. I had only recently read and posted about Nocturnes. I'm not sure if you've read it (I think you have?) but if not, you should because it's about music, which I know you're very passionate about as well. It's now one of my fave books ever.

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  6. I'm glad you liked it. I did not. I really didn't like the narrator. I found that she grated on my nerves. I found the stuff she and her friends believed was so...I don't know. I just didn't like it *shruggs*

    It has been a few years since I read it which is why I can't be more specific. I never finished the book though I know that.

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  7. I think Ishiguro's writing is beautiful.

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  8. I read this years ago, before I started blogging. I had absolutely NO CLUE what it was about...spoilers hadn't gotten to me I guess...and I was so moved. It was almost like phases of grief, left at the end with only a deep sadness but appreciation for such an amazing work. I really need to read more of his work.

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  9. I am almost always in the minority on this one, but I didn't like it very much at all. I found the main narrator to be very monotonous and flat, and I wasn't able to sympathise with her or any of the other characters as a result. I felt she was so little invested in her own plight that I couldn't really care about her either. Moreover, I wasn't spoiled about the plot, but I figured out what was going on pretty quickly; while a lot of people seemed to be really shaken by Ishiguro's big reveal I wasn't all that impressed, I suppose because I saw all of it coming from a mile away.

    This was the first Ishiguro that I read, and I have been hoping that it's fairly unrepresentative of the rest of his stuff! I have The Remains of the Day in my TBR pile, and I'm hoping I will connect with it more.

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  10. I read this earlier this year and loved it.... I read it not knowing what it was about and as I'm sure you must know ... I was like OH HECK NO!! when certain aspects of the novel were revealed. I loved the simpleness yet intriguing nature of Kathy's narration.

    ♥Nely

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  11. This is on my list to be read so thanks for warning me to stop before I might put two and two together. But I am so happy to hear another good review of this book!

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  12. I didn't realize how much this book affected me when I read it. I gave it a very mediocre review (which apparently includes spoilers - I didn't realize the "spoiler" was a secret since I figured out by page 5 what was going on. I thought the reader was SUPPOSED to know from the beginning), but the book has just stuck with me ever since. It landed in my top 15 books of the year this year, with a 3-star review.

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  13. Your review is wonderful and it makes me want to run right out and get it to read except that I already read it really disliked this one. lol

    I think Steph hit upon everything perfectly with what I felt. I knew what was going on right away so the plot didn't shock me or make me feel any sadder for them- and Kathy and her friends and the flatness of their language and the story bored me didn't inspire any feeling in me whatsoever.

    I read this with the thought that I would recommend it for my book club, but ultimately decided not to because I thought it was so bad. But everyone else loves it so that each time I see a review I am tempted to go back and see what I missed!

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  14. Back when we were supposed to read this together I couldn't find my copy, but I since have so I apparently need to read this. :)

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  15. This is one of those books that I needed to ponder for a while after reading, questioning whether I really liked it or not. I think I did. I remember a lot of things in it, little or big. I also remember the characters being quite distant for some reason, and that was probably that made me unsure. I want to read more Ishiguro's! I've been meaning to read The Remains of the Days for ages, but haven't got to it. Gah!

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  16. I managed to avoid being spoiled with this one but I think I realized it early enough that I wasn't horrified, either. My little mini review from when I read it isn't telling me much! But I agree with everything you say about Ishiguro and I do remember liking Kathy. It isn't my favorite of his but I gladly recommend it.

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  17. I'm following your advice with the less I know the better the book will be..this is on my TBR list for the future!!

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  18. I lurved this one too. Despite my general loathing of dystopia. Ishiguro is one of my very, very favourite authors. :D

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  19. I have never read this book so I only read the first one or two paragraphs of your review, but because of those paragraphs, I MUST READ THIS. :D

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  20. When We Were Orphans is one of my top favorite books. As a reader of a lot sophisticated dystopic fantasy/sci-fi, however, this one really left me scratching my head. Ishiguro was on foreign ground with the genre, which was brave of him, but it seemed really dreamlike to me--as if he were trying to capture the same emotional weight a set of images and scenarios had for him in a dream, and recreate it in a novel. Didn't quite work for me. But the images were powerful all the same.

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  21. I skipped being horrified and jumped right into being sad

    That's what I remember as well. I read it knowing nothing at all about it, it was my first Ishiguro, and I loved it. My reaction was the same as yours.
    You did a fine job of not spoiling in your review.

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  22. I remember enough of the description of what is "horrifying" about this book that I never wanted to read it. Your review makes me think about reconsidering that first impression. You see, you didn't "spoil" at all!

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  23. I was haunted by this book, some by the premise and some by how Kathy holds back from getting what limited happiness is available to her. In that restraint, almost self-sabotage, she is like the narrator in The Remains of the Day. I'm looking forward to seeing the cinematic adaptation of Never Let Me Go. I think the casting of Keira Knightley as Ruth and Carey Mulligan as Kathy sounds spot-on.

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  24. Another of the books that I love that you love..

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  25. This was also very good on audio. I need to read more Ishiguro!

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  26. I LOVED this book. So, so much. You summed up my feelings on it exactly while doing a great non-spoiler review. :)

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  27. Ok, I read the first two paragraphs of your review and skipped the rest as I am petrified of having book ending's spoiled for me! Sounds very good though, so many thanks!

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  28. :( Me sad. Me can't read Ana review. Decided not to proceed, because I have this book and really do hope to read it someday soon. Maybe I'll go reread an older Ana review...then I won't have to be so sad.

    But I can say that I'm very happy that you loved it so much!

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  29. I stopped reading after you said the less you know the better. I have this one here waiting to be read. I hope I like it as much as you did (I saw the line "the good news is that I still absolutely loved Never Let Me Go."

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  30. I loved this book, and this was a great review.

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  31. My mum got me this earlier this year and it is still on my piel to read. I will do my very best next year though as it sounds great.

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  32. It's funny you were sad about being spoiled - reading your review made me sad that I didn't know the spoilery truth when I read it the first time. (I tried to read the end, as I do, shortly after I started the book; but the pages I flipped to were unenlightening.) I think when I reread, I'm going to enjoy it a lot more because I'll be catching the meaning of all the small, strange interactions.

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  33. I don't think that the spoiler issue with this book is really that big of a deal. It isn't saved until the end, it's not a big surprise what is going on. It's how things play out and Ishiguro's mastery of the unreliable narrator that makes this novel amazing. Plus I love dystopian novels!

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  34. I've tried to read this one before and I think I just didn't give it enough time. I have however promised myself that I will read it next year.

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  35. I read this before I started the blog and can't recommend it highly enough. Literary SF at its best. I hope Ishiguro isn't as much of a snob as that other writer of literary dystopias. Ack, I wish I could say more. We should get @TrishHeyLady to read it.

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  36. I didn't read all of your thoughts because your introductory paragraphs got me to want to read this one!

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  37. I read this right after it was released. And I'm glad I did. Don't think I would have liked it nearly as much if it was spoiled for me!

    I do remember reading it, and thinking that something was not quite right. But I just couldn't quite figure it out. At least right away. Because really, it's such a horrible thing that you really SHOULDN'T be able to figure it out. You should be able to think stuff like that is possible.

    I'm glad you liked it even if you did have more of a clue than I did!

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  38. Great review. It's such a haunting story. Kind of gave me the creeps, I guess because it was so close to how things really could be.

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  39. What a beautiful review! It's so hard to review a book with such a big secret in it! I also recently read this book, and even though it was also "spoiled" for me, I just adored it. And yes, very sad. I wasn't sure if that's how I'd describe how I felt immediately afterwards, but you're very right--that's it exactly. Sad.

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  40. Yes, understated and suspenseful. This is my favorite of his that I read.

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  41. Excellent review! I just found your blog from Amy's list of blogs that moved her, and I must agree - I love your site. I recently reviewed Never Let Me Go as well. Awesome read.

    babbettesbookblog.blogspot.com

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  42. Nymeth, that was a truly beautiful review. I think you hit the nail on the head when you talk about the overwhelming sadness of the book. I didn't have it spoiled for me, but the end result was the same. I felt so sorry for these people, to be used twice: once in their care giving and again for their final sacrifice. It was just a haunting read for me, and one I won't soon forget. Again, excellent review.

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  43. It's brilliant isn't it? I think I knew more about it than I wanted to but it didn't really feel like a mysterious book so it was ok. How do you feel about the upcoming Keira Knightley film of this (I'm not please)?

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  44. Wonderful review!!!

    I went into the book completely not knowing much about it and so I came upon the full truth like Kathy and ended up having this whole separate book going on in my head.

    It was so sad how Tommy and Kathy never had the time together that they deserved and needed. It bothered me so much because it was so obvious from the beginning that they were the ones meant to be together.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.