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[personal profile] mtvessel
Mar 2007
Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro - Faber and Faber, 2006
* * * *
This is going to be a peculiarly difficult review to write. On the one hand, I really want to talk about the main theme of this book because it is both interesting and profoundly relevant. On the other, I don’t want to give away exactly what it is because it might spoil the story for those who haven’t read it. I’ll do my best, but I may get it wrong. Bear with me.

The story is told from the point of view of Kathy H., a thirty-something carer, and concerns her relationships with Tommy and Ruth, two of her fellow students at the apparently idyllic institution of Hailsham. We learn very early on that there is something special about the children of Hailsham. Although never stated, they all appear to be orphans (the adult staff are called “guardians” rather than teachers) and have a special destiny. They also seem peculiarly isolated from the rest of society (the story is set in England in the 1990s).

Kathy herself has a chatty and distinctly unliterary style, darting from one vivid school memory to the next. These are beautifully done - Ishiguro is a master of the telling detail, and the descriptions of the whimsical fads and secret phrases that develop amongst the institutionalised children are totally believable. The characterisations of the hunky but dumb Tommy and the manipulative and fantasising Ruth, not to mention Kathy herself, are also subtle and brilliant, with the ups and downs of their relationships charted through apparently casual conversational remarks that have profound consequences, both at Hailsham and later when they enter the wider world. Every scene has a dramatic tension and the book never feels flat.

Nonetheless, there is clearly something odd about the whole set-up, and the weakness of the book is that this is only partially explained when the true goings on are eventually revealed. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that the main theme is science fictional in nature, and the problem is that Ishiguro is not a science fiction writer. If he were, he would know the importance of world building, of creating an alternative society in which the idea will work. To be fair, he has a go, but he makes the same mistake as P.D. James does in The Children of Men in assuming that the public will casually accept a particular state of affairs without a murmur. Let me put it this way - I consider myself to be something of a moral coward, but there is no way in hell that I or any other person with a conscience would agree to the literally horrific Faustian bargain that is generally accepted in Ishiguro’s alternative 1990s. For the story to work, something else in addition to the events described must have happened to drastically alter the prevailing moral mindset, but Ishiguro gives no hint as to what this might have been.

Yes, I appreciate that the whole story is supposed to be a metaphor (just as P.D. James was trying to do satire in The Children of Men), but to do a novel in a realistic mode and then have us swallow a grotesque implausibility simply to make the metaphor work isn’t on. If you want to write metaphorical fiction you must either use a non-realistic setting such as an alien world or a fantasyland, or you must write in mythic mode, ideally as a short story or novella so that the reader does not have enough time to start asking awkward questions (Ursula Le Guin did something akin to Ishiguro brilliantly in one of hers - I won’t say which). A real-world setting must, by definition, be realistic, with the full range and complexity of human responses to a situation.

The result, for me at least, is that the supposedly moving ending fell flat. I had too many questions about the world and found myself disengaged from characters that despite the detailed descriptions of the minutiae of their relationships were ultimately shown to be fictional constructs. This book is, I am afraid, another example of why mainstream writers should never, ever be allowed to write science fiction. The power of Ishiguro’s writing is in the things that are not said, but which are hinted at through small details. This reticence, however, is fatal to the plausibility of his tale.


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