Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

My sad books only book club (go, Debbie Downers!) recently read Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005), the second Ishiguro book I've read (after The Remains of the Day).

I'm going to go with the idea that most people have either read this book or seen the movie, but if you haven't and you care about spoilers, there are some spoilers ahead.

Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are childhood friends at an exclusive boarding school in the English countryside called Hailsham. We see their spats and friendships and growth through the eyes of our narrator, the grown up Kathy. While much seems just like you would expect it to be, little things start sticking out as strange, and Kathy's adult perspective hints that this isn't a normal boarding school. No one has any parents, they learn that none of them can have children, and from rumors and things the Guardians have said, everyone becomes aware that they need to stay very healthy because when they grow up their organs will be harvested for transplants. They spend a lot of their time making artwork and writing poetry that is sometimes collected up and taken away. No one ever leaves the grounds of the school. Ruth and Tommy become a couple, and Kathy and Ruth stay close friends (even though Ruth seems very hard to be friends with), but nothing is ever as relaxed as it could be, especially since adulthood is a kind of mysterious obligation.

When the children become teenagers they follow the footsteps of other Hailsham residents and move into The Cottages where they have a little more freedom and mix with other people their age that didn't grow up in a boarding house. The love triangle relationship between the three friends continues to complicate, with the added pressure of really living into their reality as clones (because that, we learn, is what they are). All the residents of The Cottages ultimately seem to voluntarily isolate themselves and then slide into their training as Carers (who shepherd around other clones through the surgery and healing process), and donors, who have 3 or maybe 4 operations before "completing."

As adults, all three try to be Carers, but only Kathy really has the disposition for it. And she is very good at it. So good, in fact, that she is sometimes allowed to choose her own patients. This allows her to get back in touch with Ruth and Tommy, both of whom have had multiple operations. The love and friendship between the three of them reblooms and things come to a head when Kathy and Tommy try to find a loophole in the life of a clone so that they can be together. Since we read this for the sad book book club, I guess you can imagine how things end up.

I saw the movie before reading the book, so I was already in on the conceit from the beginning. That let me pick up on a lot of things that I might have missed if I was reading it with fresh eyes, but I'd be interested to see how it reads for someone who wasn't familiar with the plot going in.

A quick Google search shows me that I've read Ishiguro's two most popular books, but I'd really like to check out some of his other, less hyped, books as well. In both this book and The Remains of the Day we have a solitary narrator looking back at their life with studied and controlled regret. We can't believe everything they say and, for Kathy especially, they don't even know if they are remembering things right themselves. That distance and doubt makes for a very compelling narration. There is something cool and studied about Ishiguro that really draws me in as a reader, and I'm wondering if that holds true in his other, less single-character novels.


karen said...

you should read the unconsoled. it can be a tough read at points because the main, POV character is constantly confused and forgetful, and admittedly it's pretty long. but i really enjoyed it despite the frustration factor and i find i think about it often even though it's been maybe five years now since i read it.

Spacebeer said...

Thanks for the suggestion -- I'll definitely check that one out. Long and frustrating books sometimes turn out to be my favorites!

View this site for Land For Sale in Alaska said...

Ishiguro has an interesting way of writing prose. It is sort of flat and detached, almost as though he is holding back, but still resonates. I think the detachment serves to reinforce the strange lives these children and young adults have led. All in all, it is a deeply disturbing look at the human condition, love, and loyalty in the face of despair.