This review was originally published May 8, 2005, in the Albany Times Union.
Kazuo Ishiguro is a master of the writing of memory. In fictions about an English butler, a Japanese artist and a world-renown pianist, he has found life-defining secrets, decisions and failures in the smallest moments, and uses them to create literary novels that read like thrillers.
His sixth novel, “Never Let Me Go” (Knopf; 282 pages; $24), includes emotionally engaging passages about friendship, love, duty, sex and betrayal in the lives of the three main characters; however, the effect is undermined by the world in which Ishiguro contains them.
The story centers on Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, whose friendship begins at Hailsham, a boarding school in the English countryside.
Kathy is reflective, passive and somewhat dreamy. She is the kind of girl who, while listening to a pop song, dances and holds a pillow, pretending it’s her baby. Ruth is bossy and likes to appear knowing; it gives her a power that attracts others to her. For example, she pretends to know more about chess than the older students, but when she shows Kathy how to play, she says all the pieces move in an L-shape. Tommy is athletic, warm-hearted and gullible, and he is mercilessly teased by his classmates. The boys enjoy setting off his uncontrollable rages, and the girls like to watch from the dorm windows.
Except Kathy. She alone shows compassion toward Tommy during one of his episodes. She breaks from her group of friends and approaches him as he raves and stomps in the mud, telling him he’s likely to ruin his shirt, which she knows he prizes. In that moment, Kathy establishes a unique connection with Tommy. This opens the way for them to develop trust and intimacy, and makes them the novel’s most compelling characters.
Another intriguing aspect of the novel is that Kathy tells the story but is an unreliable narrator. A few times she confesses, “Maybe I’m remembering it all wrong.” This is endearing; after all, memory is often unstable, nonlinear and uncertain. Her weakness as a storyteller also is easily forgiven by the richness of her close observations. For example, she says that if two people try to have a private conversation at Hailsham the best place to go isn’t somewhere off alone because too many students would be spying from the windows. Rather, the only private place to talk is in line at the cafeteria because everyone there is too busy getting food and talking to pay much attention.
At one point, she even explains the book by saying she has an urge “to get straight all the things that happened to me and Tommy and Ruth after we grew up and left Hailsham. But I realise now just how much of what occurred later came out of our time at Hailsham, and that’s why I want first to go over these earlier memories quite carefully.” Though this creates the expectation that the novel will be about Kathy coming to terms with some kind of love triangle, deeper things also are happening.
The characters are often fraught with existential questions: Who are we? What is the purpose of our lives? Answers to these questions could be interesting, but here the story falls flat into its own fictional world.
Before you read any more of this review you should be warned that what comes next may give too much away.
A major undercurrent of the novel, and something that drives much of the plot, has to do with genetic engineering. Though Ishiguro uses this to enhance a sense of mystery, his attention to minute details leaves little room for an explanation of the broader world of his fiction. Creating new worlds is a cornerstone of the sci-fi idiom, and though Ishiguro is entering this realm, he doesn’t seem interested in dwelling there long enough.
The extreme insularity of Kathy, Tommy and Ruth’s world (and what can be more insular than a British boarding school?) creates a need for a reality check. Think of the passage in “The Remains of the Day” when the American politician at a dinner gives an outsider’s perspective by calling the British aristocrats “amateurs” as they debate En gland’s relationship with Germany.
The reality check in “Never Let Me Go,” however, feels tacked on near the end. At last, a character in the book acknowledges a wider world. But this moment comes so late (after all, Kathy, the narrator, has known these things since Page 1) that it must do too much work and ends up reading like a scene in a B-grade Bond flick when the evil mastermind explains his plans for world domination just before he tries to kill the hero.
Ultimately, the novel exudes sadness. Unfortunately, the feeling isn’t determined so much by how the characters change and relate to one another as much as by the limits Ishiguro places on the fictional world in which the characters are doomed to exist.