This book was my introduction to Kazuo Ishiguro. I’ve never read Remains of the Day or any of his other work, though if any of them are even half as good as Never Let Me Go then this author has just won himself another fan.
The story revolves around three childhood friends Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy, who grew up together at an exclusive boarding school called Hailsham. Told by 31 year old Kathy, the story comes together in flashbacks, and only through the hindsight afforded by age can Kathy understand what really made Hailsham and its students, special. To say more would be to ruin the story so I’ll leave it at that.
It wasn’t necessarily the content that kept me going through the first several chapters. Though the promise that a great secret would eventually be revealed was a great incentive, what pulled me in was Ishiguro’s use of language and his understainding of pace.
It has been a while since I’ve read such a deliberate novel. Each word, each sentence, each scene serves a solid purpose. There is nothing extraneous in this work. The language is tight, the sentences concise, and every incident the narrator relates is a building block leading to later revelations.
Not only does Ishiguro know how to use language, he has a keen understanding of pace. The story moves in a way that is both suspensful as well as revelatory. At no point did I feel bored or wish the author would hurry up and get to the point. He always revealed just enough to keep me satisfied and held back just enough to keep me reading. Finding that balance is not easy. But the structure is so tight and the prose so simple, these small feats of mastery can easily go unnoticed.
The themes of this novel have been explored ten times over by authors like Egan and Huxley. What makes us human? Where do we draw the line between human and non-human? Are only particular beings capable of having the “human experience?” Ishiguro distinguishes his story by adding a couple extra dimensions. For one, there is no “big brother” ruling Ishiguro’s dystopian society. There is no mention of escape, punishment, or physical boundaries preventing the protagonists from abandoning their predetermined lot in life and simply trying to lead normal ones. They choose not to because they have no idea how else to live. They have been raised to think their fate is the only one possible for them, they can not even conceive of what else might be out there for them. This tension brings the question how much of our own lives are freely chosen?How many choices have we settled on without knowing the full array of options availible to us? How much has learning and circumstance contributed to our own possibly narrow view of our own capabilities? How does one obtain alternate information while living in a place or within a mindframe that may not allow such information to be passed along?
And that’s just scratching the surface. The novel also touches on the universal experience of losing one’s childhood innocence. It asks the reader to wonder at what separates our society from the one presented in the book. This is a novel rich in its crafting as well as themes, and will leave the reader reflecting on it for days after.