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Never Let Me Go

Kazuo Ishiguro

Premise: A group of children grow up together in a seemingly idyllic country house, doing ordinary things like playing football and drawing pictures, only to discover that there is something horrific waiting for them in the future.

Agents, booksellers, editors, executives, reviewers and just about everyone else connected with the publishing industry love to categorise books into neat, compartmentalised genres so that they know exactly who the target audience are that they are trying to sell to, and so that the target audience themselves are able to easily identify books which are similar to ones that they have previously read and enjoyed. But whilst cross-genre offerings are acceptable to a certain extent (indeed, the idea has existed since the Ancient Greeks started mashing tragedy and comedy into tragicomedy way back in a time before indoor toilets), pinning down the precise ingredients of Never Let Me Go’s particular narrative DNA is a difficult task. Is it literary sci-fi? Dystopian romance? Moralising essay on the topic of ‘playing god’? An alternate history? Is it a story about growing up? Or a story about not growing up at all? A story about relationships? Or an exploration on what it means, at the end of the day, to be human? And for those of us who don’t particularly care about the need to label such things, the answer is that it is all of those things and more.

We are told the story from the perspective of Kathy H who is a thirty-one year old carer. She begins by looking back at her school days in a country house called Hailsham and introduces us to the two characters who will become her best friends, Tommy and Ruth. Starting off, everything is reasonably identifiable. Children being children. Temper tantrums exploding. Rules being broken. And that sort of thing. But there are enough hints hidden amongst the simple narrative that this is not quite like the childhood that we as readers can relate to. Why is there such a particular emphasis on creating things, for example? And what are these donations that the narrator keeps referring to?

Kathy keeps repeating the idea of having been “told and not told” about the future that lies in store for the ‘students’, and this sentiment also rings true to the way the story is presented to the reader. We are told but not told about what the students are, we are told but not told why they can’t have children, and we are told but not told exactly what they will be donating later in their lives. This, in part, is what makes the novel such a compelling read. Because you are always on the cusp of finding out exactly what is being alluded to, you want to keep turning to the next page and the next chapter and the next section without the author relying on dramatic cliff-hangers that barrel you over the edge. It is very subtly done and through the simplicity of the prose, it is a very beautiful creation.

As the story unfolds, we follow the characters to their lives in the ‘cottages’ where they become independent of their ‘guardians’ and see their relationships break up and remould themselves in different forms. They start to come up with theories about their existence. The idea of finding their ‘possible’ becomes an obsession for a while, and they continually discuss a rumour that they can ask for a ‘deferral’ if they can prove that they are in love. Again, everything is kept obscure, and it is only at the end of the novel, when everything is poignantly explained to Kathy and Tommy in an almost heart-breaking final scene, that the reality of their lives is finally out in the open. And through the fact that the story contains all those elements of sci-fi, dystopia, romance and morality essay all combined into one, we, as the reader, are left with lots of food for thought about such things as the best way to bring up children, the qualities of a good friend, the transition from childhood to adulthood, the extent to which society turns a blind eye to bad things that happen right beneath its nose and where exactly is that line in the sand where scientific advancement becomes a horror show that goes against the grain of our inbuilt moral code.

Who might enjoy this book: Anyone who enjoys dystopian fiction along the lines of “Brave New World” (Aldous Huxley) or anyone who likes stories that question ethically blurry areas of science (think the Sonmi-451 section of “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell)

Other highly rated books by this author: “The Remains of the Day”, “The Buried Giant”