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Never Let Me Go (thoughts)

January 8, 2008

Last year, I gushed over Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. And now, I find myself doing the same thing over my second experience with him: Never Let Me Go. The exact same word came to find as I closed the final page on this book as I used last February: exquisite. His prose is just unbelievable; it’s matched only by his perfect control.

But I guess I should back up a little. I bought this book months ago, at one of those B&N 3-for-2 sales, but I’ve been putting it off. I was terrified that it wouldn’t live up to The Remains of the Day (I mean, what could?), and I couldn’t bearSci Fi Experience to be disappointed. Also, one of the reviews I read gave away the ‘twist,’ so I expected such spoiler knowledge to ruin my reading. Finally, I decided to include it in my Sci-Fi Experience list, and in the vacuum that was the end of War and Peace, I reached for this with bated breath. And after the first paragraph, I knew I could relax: I was once again in the hands of a master craftsman.

Despite its different genre, Never Let Me Go has a very similar structure to The Remains of the Day. Once again, the reader has a first-person narrator telling a story through a series of flashbacks and reminisces that don’t follow a strict chronological order. And while at the end of Remains, I would have sworn Ishiguro was an Edwardian butler, now I’ll have to say that he must be a modern thirty-something woman who went to an elite boarding school. Because, if he doesn’t remember being an eight-year-old girl, how does he write things like this:

The field was filled with playing children, some a lot bigger than us, but Ruth led the way through them very purposefully, always a pace or two in front. When we were almost at the wire mesh boundary with the garden, she turned and said:
“Okay, we’ll ride them here. You take Bramble.”
I accepted the invisible rein she was holding out, and then we were off, riding up and down the fence, sometimes cantering, sometimes at a gallop. I’d been correct in my decision to tell Ruth I didn’t have any horses of my own, because after a while with Bramble, she let me try her various other horses one by one, shouting all sorts of instructions abouthow to handle each animal’s foibles.
“I told you! You’ve got to really lean back on Daffodil! Much more than that! She doesn’t like it unless you’re right back.

In the first part of the book, Kathy reminsces like this about growing up at Hailsham, with her best friends Ruth and Tommy. While the scenes are in many ways idyllic, there’s a thread of wrongness running through all of her stories, and the reader is on guard. Finally, about half way through, the ‘twist’ that I thought wouldn’t be until the end of the book is revealed. I won’t spoil it for anyone, but in order to talk intelligently about the rest of the book, I must say that Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy’s futures have already been decided by the government.

This uneasiness overshadows the second part, as the three friends leave the comforting shelter of Hailsham and live in a kind of ‘half-way house’ called The Cottages for a couple of years before getting ready for their adult jobs. They’re sixteen when they leave, and so much of their lives revolves around issues of self-identity and sex. Ishiguro handles this very adroitly. Nominally, they’re at The Cottages to write their final essay, and they all end up clinging to books, as Kathy explains.

In those early months, we’d somehow developed this idea that how well you were settling in at the Cottages-how well you were coping-was somehow reflected by how many books you’d read. It sounds odd, but there you are, it was just something that developed between us, the ones who’d arrived from Hailsham. You could go around implying you’d read all kinds of things, nodding knowingly when someone mentioned, say, War and Peace, and the understanding was that no one would scrutinse your claim too rationally. You have to remember, since we’d been in each other’s company constantly since arriving at the Cottages, it wasn’t possible for any of us to have read War and Peace without the rest noticing. But just like with sex at Hailsham, there was an unspoken agreement to allow for a mysterious dimension where we went off and did all this reading.

As the story progress, and Kathy is forced to face her future, she ends up drifting away from Ruth and Tommy. Then, years later, they are all reunited, and this forms the impetus for the real conflict and drama of the novel.

Honestly, there is no way for me to convey to you Ishiguro’s ability to remain in pitch-perfect character throughout the entire book, or the way that he manages to subtly build up tension to the point where it’s almost unbearable. And just when you’re teetering at the brink, he gives that one final shove, and if you’re anything like me, you end up crying. It’s funny, rereading my review of Remains, I find that so many of the sentences I wrote apply perfectly to this book as well. This certainly isn’t an uplifting story, but it is a very human story. Like in Remains, Ishiguro allows important themes to stay just beneath the surface, where the reader can find them for herself. The only way you’re going to appreciate this book is to read it for yourself. I’m glad I read it for the Sci-Fi experience, since while Vernes was heavy on the science, Ishiguro is heavy on the fiction (there is only one paragraph when he discusses the science, although it begins clear pretty quickly that’s it an alternative-history England). Now I’ve visited both ends of the spectrum, and I’m ready for the middle!

Other Book Bloggers’ Reviews:
Heather (Book Addiction)

Other Favourite Passages (might contain some spoilers):
Ruth had been right: Madame was afraid of us. But she was afraid of us in the same way someone might be afraid of spiders. We weren’t ready for that. It had never occurred to us to wonder how we would feel, being seen like that, being the spiders. (35)

This might all sound daft, but you have to remember that to us, at that stage of our lives, any place beyond Hailsham was like a fantasy land; we had only the haziest notions of the world outside and about what was and wasn’t possible there. Besides, we never bothered to examine our Norfolk theory in any detail. What was important to us, as Ruth said one evening when we were sitting in that tiled room in Dover, looking out at the sunset, was that “when we lost something precious, and we’d looked and looked and still couldn’t find it, then we didn’t have to be completely heartbroken. We still had that last bit of comfort, thinking one day, when we were grown up, and we were free to travel around the country, we could always go and find it again in Norfolk.” (66)

Then he said: “I keep thinking about this river somewhere, with the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it’s just too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, drift apart. That’s how I think it is with us. It’s a shame, Kath, because we’ve loved each other all our lives. But in the end, we can’t stay together forever.” (282)

19 Comments leave one →
  1. January 9, 2008 6:18 am

    Thanks for this positive review. I too was totally besotted with Remains of the Day, and, after leafing through a few pages of this one, wasn’t quite sure it would live up to it’s predecessor. I will definitely add it to my (ever growing!) TBR list :)

  2. January 9, 2008 6:51 am

    Yay! I’ve had this book sitting on my nightstand staring at me for MONTHS. I keep meaning to pick it up and I never do (probably because it’s on my nightstand and all my other TBR books are in boxes and stacked in my kitchen/office). It’s on my TBR Challenge list for 2008 so I’ll definitely bump it up thanks to your exquisite review!

  3. January 9, 2008 8:49 am

    Hate to be a downer here but I put this book on my Worst Reads of 2007 list. I really just could not enjoy this book, maybe it was my expectations or I was looking too much for what I wanted the book to be. I am, however, glad that you enjoyed it!

  4. January 9, 2008 11:21 am

    I’ve had this book for a while and keep putting it off but I really need to read it. My reasons for putting it off are the same ones you had! I love, absolutely love, Remains of the Day. If you are looking for another fantastic Ishiguro read I recommend The Unconsoled.

  5. January 9, 2008 2:30 pm

    I NEED to read this. Like you, I read and completely fell in love with “The Remains of the Day” last year. He really is a remarkable writer, isn’t he?

    I’ve read other reviews of this book that mention that there’s a twist, but fortunately I have never come across a spoiler!

    I’m going to check the library and see if I can read this one in time for the Sci-Fi Experience. Your review really has me itching to read it!

  6. January 10, 2008 10:51 am

    Oh my, what a beautiful review. Seriously, I think exquisite could apply to your review! Sounds like I have 2 more books to add to my wish list, as I’ve never read The Remains of the Day either.

  7. January 10, 2008 2:19 pm

    RavenousReader, this one doesn’t start out as well as Remains, but soon the similarities shine through. :)

    Andi, thanks so much! I’ll look forward to your review. :D

    Matt, no worries-I think I’m the only blogger ever who has read The Kite Runner and hated it. Have you read Remains of the Day? I’m just curious, whether it’s Ishiguro’s style or this particular book you didn’t enjoy!

    Iliana, I’ll have to hunt down The Unconsoled soon. :D Ishiguro’s just amazing!

    Nymeth, I hope your library has it! I’m glad you haven’t come across any spoilers…I can’t even remember where I did.

    Debi, what a nice thing to say! Thanks so much. :)

  8. January 18, 2008 11:17 am

    I agree! Ishiguro is one of my favorite contemporary authors, and I want to read everything he wrote.

  9. January 18, 2008 2:21 pm

    LK, me too! :D

  10. January 26, 2008 4:55 pm

    I enjoyed Never Let Me Go very much. I find Ishiguro’s writing so gentle. He is so patient and compassionate with his characters. I read The Remains of the Day for college, but I think I may have to read it again now, just for pleasure.

  11. January 26, 2008 11:04 pm

    Charley, that’s a good way to put it!

  12. Jessica permalink
    February 2, 2008 9:38 pm

    “Ruth had been right: Madame was afraid of us. But she was afraid of us in the same way someone might be afraid of spiders. We were ready for that. It had never occurred to us to wonder how we would feel, being seen like that, being the spiders. (35)”

    I don’t have the book handy, but I think this is suppose to be “we *weren’t* ready for that that.”

    It is an incredibly sad book and a favorite of mine. Good review. Now I need to read The Remains of the Day.

  13. February 3, 2008 11:17 am

    Whoops-I always have the most typos when I’m trying to copy something out of a book. Especially when it’s something I read recently-even if I go over it, it usually looks right to me. Thanks for the catch! I’m glad you enjoyed the review-it’s a difficult book to talk about fully without giving too much away. I hope you like Remains of the Day-I just love it!!!

  14. July 13, 2008 1:08 am

    I’m thinking that I should really give Never Let Me Go, another -ahem- go. Since I’ve been taking more notice of the book blog-a-sphere I’ve seen it mentioned and loved all over the place, I don’t even know why I stopped reading it, just put it down about halfway through and never picked it up again. I wasn’t as if I disliked it, either. Though I do get the impression it is one you need to “finish”, to get the most out of it.


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