Kazuo Ishiguro's sixth novel is a book that lives in the fog. A frontispiece tells us that we are in England, in the 1990s, but--despite the fact that it's clear from early on that this is not the timeline we know, it is instead one where human cloning technology was developed and widely adopted fairly soon after the second world war--we could really be anywhen. For the great majority of the novel there is no sense of politics, or culture; no context, only a pervasive, very specific type of Englishness. Everything in this novel is reserved, restrained, and above all quiet
This is not to say that it is aloof or unwelcoming. Ishiguro's great skill is that within the uncertainty of the larger world he creates an engrossing smaller world. He builds it all up as the narrator, Kathy, remembers, half-explained anecdote by anecdote, her life. What it was like to grow up at Hailsham, the days at the Cottages, becoming a carer, watching as her friends become donors: every memory is illuminated by perfect details, and Ishiguro portrays group dynamics with such deftness and nuance that every shift is heartbreaking.
The fog is appropriate, however, because as much as this is a novel about memory and the act of remembrance, it's also a novel about isolation. Kathy, like her closest friends Ruth and Tommy--like all the other students at Hailsham--is a clone. A living spare, from which organs will eventually be harvested. They know, but do not fully understand, what this means their lives will be like. It sets them apart, and the way Ishiguro portrays this is, for most of the novel, extremely clever. There are levels here: the central trio within Hailsham within the disjointed world of the clones within the larger setting of England. Kathy and her friends may not realise exactly how the rest of the world sees them, but the readers most certainly do. There is no need
to provide context within this novel, because this novel is embedded in our
culture, and a thousand and one stories have shaped our preconceptions about what clones are and what they mean. We know how others see them.
For almost all the novel, this approach works. It is a novel where science fiction is the setting, not the story. By this I mean that like the culture, the science is so far down in the mix that it barely registers. How the clones are created, how the donations occur, exactly which organs are taken when--these questions simply do not matter. Neither are many of the traditional concerns of genre sf, what you could call the questions of the world, relevant; it's a book that inhabits a much narrower imaginative space. It looks entirely inward, not outward (another reason for the fog), and concerns itself almost completely with the day-to-day.
The result is a powerful and very human story. For Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, what they are at once irrevocably shapes who they are, and is entirely irrelevant. Their assumptions about the world, their dreams and hopes and reactions are in many subtle ways different to our own. They grow up knowing their place in the world, and their purpose--but they love like us. They experience loss and regret like us. They live
like us, with everything that implies.
Such an approach flies in the face of every absurd prejudice about clones. It refutes utterly any suggestion that they might be somehow 'unnatural', or 'wrong'. This is the strong moral core at the centre of the book, and though I suspect Ishiguro's readership consists mostly of the converted, if this book makes even one or two people question their assumptions about the implications of biotechnology then it is a good thing. It is, as ever, what we might do with it that is the problem.
Unfortunately, there is a flaw towards the end of the book that very nearly derails the entire enterprise. A few chapters from the end, there is a lecture in which the characters and the audience have everything explained to them. All the mysteries of the world are brought into the light. It makes sense for this to happen, because it is clear that Hailsham students lead sheltered lives of--compared to other clones--exceptional privilege. One of the arguments running through the book is a questioning of how far this sort of isolation might be a good thing. On the one hand, they are deliberately mislead about their lives; on the other, they are given a certain amount of hope, and by their ignorance they are given a certain space in which to be happy.
Consequently, many of the most poignant moments in the book have to do with innocence; there are moments when Kathy doesn't realise what she has, and, more affectingly, moments when she almost does. And so the lecture, representing the final loss of that innocence, should be a powerful moment, yet it doesn't work. The problem, for me, is not the existence of such a bald infodump, it is the fact that it tells us nothing new. All that it achieves is to burn away much of the fog, but there's nothing revealed that we didn't already suspect; the net result is only a story drained of resonance. It's the problem of bringing the monster on-screen for the climax of a horror film (for in a very real sense, this is a novel of horror): the mystery is gone, and what remains is simply not as interesting as what was imagined before.
There is much to like about Never Let Me Go
, and a decent amount to love. It's a novel about the small things in life that speaks to the big things in life. The intricacy of its construction is genuinely impressive, and makes me want to seek out more of Ishiguro's work. And yet, the final loss of grace, deliberate though it may be, ensures that this book is ultimately frustrating, rather than truly successful.
M John Harrison in The Guardian
Ishiguro's contribution to the cloning debate turns out to be sleight of hand, eye candy, cover for his pathological need to be subtle. So what is Never Let Me Go really about? It's about the steady erosion of hope. It's about repressing what you know, which is that in this life people fail one another, grow old and fall to pieces. It's about knowing that while you must keep calm, keeping calm won't change a thing. Beneath Kathy's flattened and lukewarm emotional landscape lies the pure volcanic turmoil, the unexpressed yet perfectly articulated, perfectly molten rage of the orphan.
True and not true; the book is certainly about the sort of entropy that Harrison says it is, but I think it is a disservice to Ishiguro's achievement to read it entirely in that way.
Andrew Barrow in The Independent
Ishiguro is primarily a poet. Accuracy of social observation, dialogue and even characterisation is not his aim. In this deceptively sad novel, he simply uses a science-fiction framework to throw light on ordinary human life, the human soul, human sexuality, love, creativity and childhood innocence.
What was it that Matt Cheney said recently? Ah yes
"A science fiction writer?" people would say skeptically when anyone suggested that that was a label Bunch deserved. "No, he just writes about the implications of technology on what it means to be human, creating postmodern fables of alienated identity. That's not science fiction."
No, it's not. Not anymore.
Compare and contrast, eh? Moving on ... Cheney's own review
Never Let Me Go has more unity of form and content than thousands of other novels, and this fact makes it seem odd and anomalous, makes Ishiguro seem a bit freakish even. It is a book that is entirely faithful to the premises it sets up, but not in the way that is governed by a political, scientific, or economic logic from "the real world". The only world here is the one between the first word and the last, but the art is that the book's world is provocative enough to force us to consider our own world and our own lives.
Peter Kemp in the Sunday Times
What happens among [the trio] is enthralling enough but is played out against more and more attention-seizing disclosures of the circumstances inside which they find themselves. Lives maimed by oppressive milieux have been at the heart of almost every Ishiguro novel. Here, he carries this preoccupation a cruel stage further. Exploitation, always an important theme, emerges in a disturbingly macabre form. Graceful and grim, the novel never hardens into anything as clear-cut as allegory but it resonates with disquieting suggestiveness. Slowly uncovering an appalling system, Ishiguro uses it to stir emotions — shock, compassion, shame, guilt — that exposés of brutally callous social or global injustices might evoke. Discomfitingly, he spotlights the out-of-sight-out-of-mind unfeelingness on which human comfort can depend.
This is more like it. When the novel really works, it's because it works on the personal and
the social levels.
Margaret Atwood (!) at Slate
(in the only review not to mention the phrase 'science fiction' at all):
Tellingly, two words recur again and again. One, as you might expect, is "normal." The other is "supposed," as in the last words of the book: "wherever it was that I was supposed to be going." Who defines "normal"? Who tells us what we are supposed to be doing? These questions always become more pressing in times of stress; unless I'm much mistaken, they'll loom ever larger in the next few years.
Yes, absolutely. I touched on this when I talked about the characters having an assigned purpose. There is a heightened sense of regret that comes from knowing, or suspecting, what you're missing, and being unable to do anything about it.
Lastly, Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times
As in so many of Mr. Ishiguro's novels, there is no conventional plot here. Instead, a narrator's elliptical reminiscences provide carefully orchestrated clues that the reader must slowly piece together, like a detective, to get a picture of what really happened and why.
Like the author's last novel ("When We Were Orphans"), "Never Let Me Go" is marred by a slapdash, explanatory ending that recalls the stilted, tie-up-all-the loose-ends conclusion of Hitchcock's "Psycho." The remainder of the book, however, is a Gothic tour de force that showcases the same gifts that made Mr. Ishiguro's 1989 novel, "The Remains of the Day," such a cogent performance.
Well, I'm glad someone else feels the ending is unbalanced, at least.
As a sort of follow-up to all of the above, this evening I went to see Ishiguro at the Oxford Literary Festival, in conversation with John Carey. He turns out to be a personable and fascinating interviewee. Many of the standard writer-questions came up (does he rewrite? Yes, and plans extensively; do his characters ever take on lives of their own? No, they're under his control) and there were some interesting notes on Never Let Me Go
(he sees the novel as being about the perspective of people with small lives, and the way he portrays England is a result of that; he took a deliberate choice to portray every location, wherever it was, as being like Norfolk on a grey day). The greater part of the discussion, though, and the most relevant here, focused on Ishiguro's approach to storybuilding.
Carey commented that he thought Ishiguro what he called an 'incalculable writer', one whose books are all individually distinctive (by contrast with 'calculable writers' such as Austen or Dickens whose books all share traits). Ishiguro responded that it may look like that from the outside, but that to him the distinction is less clear because they all seem to be a product of the same process. He starts with a question, or a theme, or an idea--usually one of emotion, such as 'how sad it is that it is so easy to waste a life'--and only after he's got that proceeds to selecting a setting and genre. Hence the surrealism of The Unconsoled
; hence the science fiction of Never Let Me Go
The reason he did this, he said, is that he sees himself as quite an abstract writer, and indeed feels uneasy about the fictional convention of having one character stand for a whole society. His next novel is likely to be about how societies remember and forget (as opposed to most of his novels to date, which are about how individuals remember and forget), and he finds himself reluctant to set it in, say, postwar Japan; he's more tempted by the ability to invent, to create a purpose-built world. The example he gave was of a Scotland with a different history to the Scotland we know.
There was some discussion about whether modern fiction is too afraid to do this sort of invention--noting that many of the US reviews have apparently hailed Never Let Me Go
as a welcome return to realism (!) after The Unconsoled
. Carey suggested that the important thing is that any unreality has a reason. Ishiguro later suggested that one reason he's drawn to it is a sort of impatience with the real world--he's perhaps most interested in the emotional through-line arising from whatever question he's trying to explore, and is more interested in exploring that than in describing the real world. And this ties in, maybe, with how he spoke about his approach to narrative, specifically using memory instead of plot as a guiding line, and the sort of fluidity that allows, and the contrast and emotional texture it creates.
As you might imagine, not only do I want to go and read Ishiguro's back-catalogue, I now find myself looking forward to his next novel quite a lot.