Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is a Nobel Prize in Literature winning novel about a group of kids who go through a boarding school called Hailsham, somewhere in England, set in the end of the 20th Century (that sounds so much longer ago than it was). Narrated by an adult Kathy, she recounts events of her childhood and adolescence, along with important relationships and interactions along the way that ultimately lead to the — arguably devastating — completion of the novel.
My partner had already read this book, so when I started in and had complaints about the writing style (see below), we had a conversation about the nature of the book and what it’s doing and how. And, of course, he and everyone else I know who’s read it has leaped to prepare me for the emotional devastation of the book’s conclusion. This was, you can imagine, detrimental to the experience.
Ishiguro writes his books in such a way that, when translated into other languages, details and meanings aren’t lost. This makes for a peculiar style of prose that reads very stilted to me, and I struggled with it throughout Part 1, but I had mostly gotten used to it by Part 2. I can’t say I ever came to enjoy it, personally, but I hold a great deal of respect and admiration for a writer who uses language that translates equally to ensure that all demographics get the same reading experience (more or less).
Part 1 especially focuses on Kathy’s childhood and youth at Hailsham, complete with all the trivial social drama that plagues school children. As students at a boarding school, Hailsham students were carefully monitored and guarded; and, while they were constantly reminded that they were special, they were kept in the dark about how and why that was true — i.e. they gaslit them into oblivion.
Unsurprisingly, the climate of secrecy and ignorance led to a school-wide prohibition on asking probing questions — which isn’t to say that no questions are ever asked. But it’s a faux pas. You’re not supposed to ask; it was embarrassing — but also, what’s the answer because I really want to know, and since someone else embarrassed themselves to ask, I might as well benefit — and led to at least a few days of a campus-wide cold shoulder. It’s distressing how often these children and adolescents throw out variations of “You’re so stupid” — although certainly analogous to real-life behavior — over everything.
The entirety of Kathy’s school experience resonated, insofar as it was tangible and real. Ishiguro captures the primary/elementary social experience in a way that doesn’t read condescending or trivializing. This is another element I appreciate in a book, because children hold a special kind of intelligence and understanding that, while apart from adult perspective, is entirely valid and genuine and deserving of respect and care.
One issue I faced during this novel was temporal context on my part: The last literary fiction novel I read was vague to the point of detrimental, dancing so far around the truth that it becomes this elitist jab that the just isn’t smart enough to get it. (And I’ve dated enough writers to know that that can be a 100% fair description.) The actual plot of this novel often felt plodding and as if the ambiguity, or rather the entire lack of explicative information, is pejorative in that same way. It isn’t; it’s just a different kind of storytelling. But it’s a kind of storytelling that I often find irritating—and I recognize this as a personal preference issue rather than a structural issue of the novel.
Objectively, this novel’s pacing in its provision of small details — and even bigger details — is well done (probably why it was so irritating, TBH), and even adept at holding a reader’s attention or interest, insofar as you have to finish the book to have any idea wtf is going on. The truth is an umbrella that sits just behind your head. You know it’s there because you keep getting hints at it, and you understand that it’s an umbrella, but you’re never given more than an inch of it at a time — and it’s always a weird inch. But you still know you’re holding an umbrella.
Upon leaving Hailsham in their mid-teens, Kathy and her friends Ruth and Tommy all depart to “the Cottages”, which is another secluded location where Hailsham students — and those like them from other facilities or schools — live until they become carers, which they’ll do until they are called to begin donation. The book is more focused on Kathy’s relationships with Tommy and Ruth than it is with the Great Mystery of Their Lives, but the two subjects are so indelibly tied together that one is never far from the other. And, in fact, it is a great source of undercurrent contention between all persons involved, felt by the reader instead of expressed to them.
Without getting weighed down in the interpersonal drama that exists between Kathy and Ruth — although I will state for the record that Ruth is rampantly emotionally abusive, and it bothered me constantly throughout; and, on the topic, while Kathy becomes complicit in a number of the terrible things that Ruth does (or says), I don’t place her in the same category — and either/both girls with Tommy, this triangle is the ultimate fulcrum on which the plot rests: Ruth and Tommy date for a long time, but when Ruth is at the end of her life — near “completion”, as they say — she apologizes to them both for keeping them apart, gives them the address of an Important Person, and insists that they take advantage of their rumored opportunity to defer donation for a few years to live in love.
The devastation lies in the truth that no one ever told them. These rumors and ancillary characters fuel this long-shot hope for a reprieve from the dead-end avenue of their lives — not even escape, just deferral of fate — only to ultimately be stomped into a pulp. Hailsham students — and those of other, similar institutions — have one-track lives that always terminate in an early death.
This is where another important aspect about Never Let Me Go comes into play: It thematically critiques Western class structures and white colonialism. It’s not a stretch to note the parallels between both England’s relationship with its many colonies and its own internal relationships. The very cold conversation that served as the novel’s devastating climax explores this notion of Moral Rightness™: We know what’s best for you, but you don’t get a say, because what do you know?
This is essentialized colonialism that maps onto every move Britain’s ever made (#SorryNotSorry) in the world. Move in –> mask disdain for local populations with “This is for your own good!” –> disrupt functioning social ecosystems and, usually, physical ecosystems as well –> instate an ill-fitted hierarchy –> whinge that things are broken and now there are problems –> eventually get forcibly evicted and then butthurt about it because, after all, look at what we gave you.
Hailsham was created to assuage a moral guilt about a grossly inhumane process that the public didn’t want to think about. Public opinion swayed in their favor until someone else did something shady, and then they lost all support for this project, it fails, and now these kids are left resigned to the aforementioned inhumane facilities, never to know any better. These children are “special”, all right: They’re basically livestock. They’ve been created out of the lowest tiers of society to grow new parts for real people, and people look at these individuals and see a person, which makes them uncomfortable, so they look away.
Sounds oddly topical and familiar, doesn’t it?
Now, for my primary conflict: I’m not sure if it’s because I was so avidly warned about the devastation, or because I’m too cynical for my own mental health’s good, or because I’ve read too many other books that did much worse — at least explicitly — or whatever the reason might be. But I just didn’t think this book’s climax was nearly so devastating as I was led to believe it’d be. Sure, objectively, and for the characters, the moment is devastating. But as a reader, I saw the reality of the situation coming long before it got there, and although I certainly didn’t know all of the details, I just wasn’t surprised. It wasn’t surprising! Nobody goes through all of the effort that was done to raise these kids, invests the capital necessary to maintain a boarding school, just to let the former students fuck off when they decide this isn’t what they want to do. It was never going to happen, and I was never disillusioned about that.
And yet that ending conversation and the dehumanization and gas lighting has stuck with me, and stuck hard, which might be a greater measure of a book than the in-moment reaction. The brutality of a conversation in which former caretakers laugh in your face about a desperate hope for time — not your life, just time — and says you’re not a real person and you’re repulsive but we felt bad so we tried to make it less bad. And Kathy and Tommy say “But it was still bad!”— and they’re met with But think of what we did give you! You could’ve had it worse! Knowledge is power, and they denied their students any. These former caretakers have cleared their consciences because they did the best they could, and it wasn’t enough, but how long could they fight? But even that maps out onto white saviorism, so we’re right back to it.
Never Let Me Go can be difficult to get into for its prose and the absolute inane nature of recounting school social drama; the narrator jumps around a lot, although it’s sufficiently followable, just kind of annoying. Too many instances of to explain this thing, I have to explain this other thing first. My own enjoyment varied greatly chapter to chapter, and I found much to complain about. But still I was drawn through the narrative and compelled to complete it, and the themes and weight have dug hooks into my brain. And I think that says more about a book’s quality than whether or not a reader “enjoyed” it.