BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The story of three friends raised at an exclusive, idyllic private school who must eventually come to terms with their own existence.
PROS: Thought-provoking; emotional resonance; sympathetic characters; written with an unmatched and beautiful subtlety.
CONS: Can’t think of any; this book does everything good fiction should do, and does it very well.
BOTTOM LINE: A highly recommended book.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s hauntingly memorable novel Never Let Me Go is a book that seems to want to appeal to mainstream audiences because the science fictional aspects of the story are underplayed. Indeed, the sf-nal underpinnings of the story are not even revealed until a good portion of the novel is already underway. That revelation also constitutes a spoiler, making any spoiler-free discussion of the book difficult, or at least somewhat limited.
What can be discussed is the generalized plot and construction of the novel. Never Let Me Go is the story of three friends (Kathy, Tommy and Ruth) who grew up at an exclusive boarding school in the English countryside. The students at Hailsham were always kept apart from the outside world and looked after by guardians, who educated them just like one would expect. But there is something quite different about this setup; something that is occasionally hinted at that makes this seemingly mundane story much more alluring. That hidden layer of secrecy is slowly unraveled by the story’s narrator, Kathy (now an adult), as she recounts their lives through flashback…a series of recollections sparked by the ultimate destinies of Kathy and her friends.
It’s easy to sympathize with the main characters of the novel. Kathy is perhaps the most-level headed and selfless of the three friends. She tolerates the controlling (and sometimes mean) nature of Ruth, the alpha-leader of their group, and she even befriends Tommy, the troubled misfit/outcast who is the target of bullying and laughter. The first act of the novel depicts their life at Hailsham, where they are encouraged to create art for inclusion into the school’s esteemed gallery and looked after by teachers who try (some better than others) to conceal the students’ true purpose. The reader knows there is something odd going on…the first clue of which is how the students are referred to by first name and an initial, like Kathy H. and Tommy D. Even at that early stage the students know they are different, too; not just through hints about it in their lessons, but also from the looks the “poor creatures” receive from the occasional deliveryman. They know there is something special about them, but they don’t quite understand.
The second act shows Kathy, Tommy and Ruth after they have moved on from Hailsham and are living in cottages with other “specials”. Here, they are finally moved a little closer to the reality of their situation when some of the previous residents begin their training as “carers”. At this point, the true nature of the situation is known, and that leads to some wonderfully apropos scenes that logically flow from it. In particular there is a daytrip scene in which Ruth is forced to confront her destiny. This leads to the final act, which shows the characters finally coming to terms with everything that’s only been hinted at before.
The delivery of the story is fairly straightforward, so what makes it so alluring? A large part of it has to do with the subtlety of the storytelling. There is a strong undercurrent of seriousness throughout the entirety of the novel surrounding the ultimate fate of these characters. While things are happening and people are talking, there is an unspoken motive driving them that is very powerful and very palpable. That is not to say that they are not occasionally brought to the forefront of the narrative, but the majority of time they lurk in the background. Yet the reader clearly knows why things are happening the way they are and why characters are acting like they do. That’s because the novel, while it innocently depicts the lives of these three friends (strained as those relationships sometimes are), is really asking tough, thought-provoking questions about what it means to be human. These are the questions that resonate emotionally. These are the themes that are at once beautiful and tragic. And that is the power of Never Let Me Go. By not saying what we know it’s about, it speaks volumes.