Thursday, June 9, 2011

Review: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go
By Kazuo Ishiguro

Published in: 2005

Synopsis (from back cover): Ishiguro imagines the lives of a group of students growing up in a darkly skewed version of contemporary England. Narrated by Kathy, now thirty-one, Never Let Me Go dramatises her attempts to come to terms with her childhood at the seemingly idyllic Hailsham School and with the fate that has always awaited her and her closest friends in the wider world. A story of love, friendship and memory, Never Let Me Go is charged throughout with a sense of the fragility of life.

I have to apologise in advance because this review is probably going to be rather vague and disjointed because there is a central premise to this novel that I simply cannot reveal for fear of it spoiling your experience if you decide to read it. It isn't a massive twist or a secret held over the heads of the characters that you don't find out until the very end, in fact you find out pretty early (page 80 or so) and it's something the characters have always known. But still, it is a crucial component of the plot and I think you'll appreciate it more if you read it completely clear of any assumptions you might make.

I actually went into the book knowing the 'surprise,' it certainly didn't stop me from enjoying the book and I think I may have picked up on it before the reveal anyway (it is referred to somewhat cryptically earlier in the book several times) but I did wonder how I'd feel now if I hadn't known it at all. I hope I haven't talked it up too much now, it isn't some murder mystery clue but it is key to the depth and intensity of this novel.

The narration takes place in the 1990s and looks over the previous two decades, although there are clear parallels to situations that happened in our 1970-1990s and events that lead up to it, it is definitely an alternate 1970-1990s, a way the world could have been if we'd made certain discoveries or decisions different to the ones made in our timeline. The guts of that is never explained but there are veiled references to a war and scientific discoveries made in the 1950s. Ultimately it doesn't matter though, like Meg Rossof's How I Live Now, while all this other stuff is going on in the background the concentration is on the characters and their actions which may or may not have any solid relation to the political and social backdrop of the novel.

Very simply, Never Let Me Go is a love story. A sad, wistful love story which at its core is imploring it's readers to seize the day, to embrace and act on their feelings as soon as they're realised and to never let them go. Narrated by Kathy it covers three major periods she recognises in her life, from her earliest memories as a student at Hailsham house (ages 6-12), to the period just before she left Hailsham and moved to the cottages (ages 15-18), to the final period after she left the cottages and saw no more of Tommy and Ruth. Her narration takes place several years after everything has happened and there is a combination of nostalgia, hindsight, naivety, warmth and desperation to her story. She tries to so hard to tell you everything, to explain everything and help you understand why things happened the way they did. Even though the narration was specifically talking to another person ('it might have been different for you' etc) I got the feeling that the benefit was more for her, to make sense of her own memories and to keep them fresh so that they can never fade away.

I briefly mentioned Ruth and Tommy, and they are the other two characters who make up the central characters along with Kathy. Ruth is Kathy's best friend, although at times it is hard to understand why. As harsh and as cruel as she can be to Kathy there is a deep connection of love between them and perhaps Ruth's actions can be explained away as jealousy formed at an early age (and probably for no real reason), that insidious kind of jealousy some kids seem destined to foster and cling to through adolescence. Tommy is an absolutely wonderful character, he's such an innocent kid and everyone sort of takes advantage of that. I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a bit of a crush on him, he's wonderfully earnest and really seems to be the only character in the story who truly understands everything that's happening.

The key to the success of this novel is the simplicity of it. It is deceptively simple, the language and the storyline are so subtle, that you don't realise how much heaviness and heartache and beauty there is in the book until you finish it and realise you can't move from the weight of it. I finished the book on my bus home from uni and I walked straight home, took off my shoes, slipped into bed under the doona and just curled up into a ball, just overcome with how devastating the book is. I stayed like that for about 20 minutes, absolutely heartbroken, until the heaviness began to recede. If you asked me to describe what it was about the book that made it hit me so hard I'd be unable to answer you. I loved the writing, and the characters and the voice and the messages but everything was just so understated that I never would have guessed halfway through that this book would impact me in the way it did.

It does have flaws, the most glaring for me would be surrounding the triangle set up between Tommy, Kathy and Ruth. It jumps from them as 10 year olds when Kathy is friends with Ruth and Tommy but Ruth and Tommy aren't friends to them being about 15 and Tommy and Ruth dating. I felt like I'd missed a chapter because I hadn't seen any signs that it was headed in that direction. I'd been reading fairly late at night so I actually went back and re-read it looking for some kind of sign that I'd missed before. I couldn't find one and that would be the single biggest fault in this book. It jarred me out of the story because I had to go back and try and work it out, and then it took awhile to fall back into the rhythm and accept this relationship that had no foundation what-so-ever.

Even so, this was an amazing book and I truly adore it. It is one of those special books that wriggles under your skin and remains there for days. It may be simple but there is an elegance and a beauty to it's simplicity that is impossible to deny. I recommend this to anyone who has a heart, but I sincerely recommend that you steer clear of reading it on public transport!

My rating: 5/5

~This is my first review for the 'Book to Movie' challenge. Click HERE to read the companion piece I've written about the film adaptation and keep an eye out for my other reviews to come under the challenges tab up top.~


  1. Great review(s)! I loved the book and especially loved how Ishiguro slowly revealed the plot twist. It's been almost a year since I read the book so hopefully my movie experience will be better than yours.

  2. Thanks. I hope your movie experience is better too! I still really enjoyed the film, and if I'd never read the book I'm almost certain I would have loved it, but it was just missing Ishiguro's magic :(



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