Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go
January 11, 2011, 2:51 pm
Filed under: Book Reviews, Literary Fiction | Tags: , , , ,

Kazuo Ishiguro is one of those unfortunate authors* who I have intended to read for years, but never have. I tried The Remains of a Day once, sort of forgot about after fifty pages, and have never been back; but when I was last in the Peace Corps office (on a medical run, the thrills of which I will never forget) I found a copy of Never Let Me Go.

This review is going to be one giant spoiler, by the way, so if you want to read this book you should probably stop here.

I had a vague idea of what Never Let Me Go is about, which is why I kept pushing through the parts that had me wanting to fall asleep. The story is told by Kathy, mostly through recollections about her and two of her friends, Tommy and Ruth, who were pupils with her at Hailsham, a school located in England’s countryside. The way the story is told doesn’t give much hint at what their lives “really” are, which was at the same time what I liked and disliked about the book.

Tommy, Ruth and Kathy are all clones, created to donate their organs once they reach maturity. Hailsham is a revolutionary establishment. Donors have not, traditionally, been treated humanely or even as humans, but the founders of Hailsham create an environment much like that of any boarding school. Ishiguro raises some interesting questions here, which he leaves largely unaddressed and to the reader. There is a strange and mixed morality to many aspects of life at Hailsham precisely because the pupils are raised in a kinder fashion. At novel’s end, for instance, we learn that the art the students were urged to create and from which “Madame” chose pieces several times a year, was part of an effort by the school’s founders to prove that the donors had souls and should be treated more humanely. This sits oddly with the fact that they were still raising the donors to die so their organs could be harvested.

Kathy, though, doesn’t address this much, or even the strange facts of her existence. To her that she should become a “carer” for those clones who are making donations, and eventually donate her own organs (the things which are most shocking to the reader), are givens of her existence, are things she has somehow known for most of her life. As she writes:

Tommy thought it possible the guardians had, throughout all our years at Hailsham, timed very carefully and deliberately everything they told us, so that we were always just too young to understand properly the latest piece of information. But of course we’d take it in at some level, so that before long all this stuff was there in our heads without us ever having examined it properly.

It’s a bit too much like a conspiracy theory for me – I don’t think our guardians were that crafty – but there’s probably something in it. Certainly, it feels like I always knew about donations in some vague way, even as early as six or seven. And it’s curious, when we were older and the guardians were giving us those talks, nothing came as a complete surprise. It was like we’d heard everything somewhere before. (75)

That they accept all these things as givens, that they never question too much anything about their lives, made the book stylistically interesting to me – but kind of boring to read. Kathy is writing almost exclusively about her friendships as she grew up, about Tommy and Ruth’s relationship and later her relationship with Tommy, which begins after he has already made three donations.** For the reader, this is largely the story of their friendship, with these other issues (of whether they have souls, of the justifications of creating life only to destroy it for the benefit of others, of raising donors in a sheltered environment without giving them any clear sense of their limited futures) coloring the story, directing the course of the characters’ lives, but never coming to the front.

I find the book more interesting in theory than in fact. Ishiguro writes the story so exactly as Kathy’s recollections that certain phrases we all use when speaking of the past (I remember…, At the time…, What I remember now is…, Looking back now…, What I’m saying is…) become exhausting for being used so regularly over the course of the 250-page novel. And there were other constructions that were used to excess, like how half the segments in the book ended with a “mini cliffhanger” in which some episode not previously mentioned is introduced (like, “What happened after that row over the chess illustrates pretty well the point I’m making” [48]), to be addressed in the next segment of the book.

Those “phrases of recollection” and the fashion in which segment after segment ends drove me nuts. I don’t know whether to praise Ishiguro for so exactly capturing the way we talk and write when we’re remembering, or slap him for doing so. It’s these two things, more than anything else, that gave me the middling feelings on the book I have; so although I feel I can praise him for managing to get down a character and these writing tics, for showing – but never saying – how this world and life is normal for her, I wouldn’t want to return to this book.

Still, it’s an interesting book and the issues that are hinted at throughout bring up some disturbing questions. Most people in this alternate world (of 1990s England), for instance, believe that clones don’t have souls; that’s what makes it acceptable to harvest their organs. Yet that they don’t want to see the clones, to think about them, for there to be schools like Hailsham, suggests that they suspect there is more to the clones, that there is something reprehensible about this way of creating life only to destroy it. The clones themselves raise another issue, which is that their cell donors are taken from the poorest people; so there is some inherent inequality in the way cells are donated (presumably for money), an activity that seems viewed as disgusting and low in the culture of this alternate England. And even those who are sympathetic to the clones, who want to see them shown greater kindnesses and better childhoods, act in a morally mixed fashion; they hide facts from the clones as children, they keep secret what their lives will become, really become, they fail to prepare them for the outside world, and they admit and sometimes show their fear and revulsion of the clones.

That Ishiguro never addresses these issues directly, but rather leaves them to fester in the reader’s mind, shows some strength on his part as a writer. But that’s my problem with the book as a whole – I find it a lot easier to admire what he did in a theoretical way, than I did as a reader.

* Assuming that all writers have a great stake in whether I am reading their books or not.

** The way the organ donations were dealt with was one of the things that most got on my nerves about this book. For the narrative, it’s necessary that the characters donate their organs bit by bit, that months pass between donations; if not for that, there wouldn’t be the chance for any new developments in the characters’ relationships later in the time of the novel. But part of me couldn’t stop thinking, “They wouldn’t really do it this way. They’d take all the organs at once!” Because, really, why create a clone for organ donations only to extract a few organs over, say, a year, putting money and time into recuperation between each donation, and then go all out and take the rest of the organs? Why not take all of the organs at the same time?



I was pretty meh about this book when I read it, but after about six months it just stayed with me and permiated my thoughts so much that it grew to be one of my favorites. It’s been almost two years since I read it, and I still think about it often.

Comment by Amanda

i kind of wonder if the same will happen to me – because as much as i didn’t love the book, i still remember its plot and characters (a few weeks after finishing) much more clearly than i usually do.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I skipped most of your review after you told me it was one big spoiler (thanks for the alert). I did have this is my hands this weekend at the bookstore but didn’t end up buying it. Since then I’ve read a few reviews and now I want to read it more than ever. It would be my first Ishiguro.

Comment by Brenna

I didn’t have a problem with the pace of the donations. I assumed that organs were harvested as they were needed, based on donor-receiver matches, the same way transplants are matched today.

As for the phrases of recollection, I agree that they have the potential to be annoying; however, it felt to me like Ishiguro had really captured a speaker who still had a strong childlike sensibility. Even as an adult, Kathy struck me as having a limited capacity for understanding and expressing the events of her life, as though part of her hadn’t quite grown up.

Comment by ohemgillie

Great review! You’ve captured a lot of things I also found troubling or annoying about the book, and yet all in all it was still a compelling, thought-provoking book. I also agree it was slower and a little duller than I expected, but in retrospect those seemed like strengths. Ishiguro raises all these disturbing ideas in such a calm, subtle way, where the characters barely know they should be concerned. I love the idea that these characters are both privileged and horrifically used at the same time.

Comment by curlygeek04

Love this review, also loved the book. I think his very muted style of writing kind of makes the story as well as the issues he brings up more horrific and troubling.

Comment by Nishita

[…] Elizabeth George – Payment in Blood (12/30/10) Charles Portis – True Grit (12/29/10) Kazuo Ishiguro – Never Let Me Go (12/28/10) Rory Stewart – The Prince of the Marshes (12/27/10) Bill Bryson – […]

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