May 5 2009 1:02pm

The upspoken and the unspeakable: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go is an astonishing novel that uses the language of privilege to talk about monstrosity. Ishiguro, who also wrote The Remains of the Day, is an absolute master of writing in first person. He uses it here to guide and limit and control what we learn when, using not so much an unreliable narrator as an unquestioning one. He uses the very form of the narrative expectations, to set you up to expect a certain kind of thing and then dynamites them. It’s a very uncomfortable reading experience, but it’s an unforgettable one.

This is part of the recent wave of mainstream respected literary writers writing science fiction. Unlike earlier attempts by Lessing, Piercy and others, books like Never Let Me Go and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union know how to manipulate the technical toolkit you need to write SF. Far from being overexplained, Never Let Me Go builds up its world at precisely the right pace. It could have done with a little more attention to the scientific details, but so could a lot of books written by genre writers.

I think it may be best approached without knowing anything about it other than it’s science fiction and brilliant, but I’m going to go on to discuss it with some mild spoilers.

It’s the first person story of Kathy and her relationships with Tommy and Ruth from the time they were in school until their deaths. It is told at a specific present date (England, 1990s, as it says) but the narrative jumps about between times, mainly but not always in order, in a way reminiscent of many other novels of life looked back at. I could compare this to Signs of Life or Brideshead Revisited or Tea at Gunters. It’s like that. And at the same time, it’s much bigger inside than it looks from outside, and it fits much better with Mirror Dance and Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. Kathy thinks she’s telling the story of how fortunate and privileged she was and of her relationships, but she’s really telling the story of an alternate world where clones are living their short lives to help other people live longer ones. Her friends “complete” their “donations” and die at twenty three and twenty-eight, and Kathy accepts this even as she, at thirty, prepares to begin her own. The privilege is anything but, and the most chilling thing of all is how completely and utterly Kathy accepts her lot.

This is a book that holds up as well on the third reading as it did on the first, where I stayed up half the night to finish it. Kathy’s voice, the world, the details—a pencil case or a cassette tape is a treasure to these privileged children, Kathy thinks she’s so lucky, she has a bedsit, and the work she does caring and advocating for the donors before she begins her own donations is actually useful. Yet she knows, “knows and does not know” as she says, that normal people can work in offices or as postmen, and she will be dead before she’s thirty-five, so that those “normal people” can have their cancer cured. And the normal people accept it. The most enlightened ones we see think that the lives of the clones shouldn’t be as horrible as they possibly can be, that they should be like Kathy’s lucky life.

If there’s an opposite of “fantasy of political agency” it’s “fantasy of complete powerlessness,” and this is it. In a conventional story about clones and their horrible lives, you’d have clones trying to escape or organizing a revolt. They would at very least recognise how awful it is. It’s Kathy’s cheerful acceptance of everything that makes this so brilliant and unbearable. There’s a rumour that people who are truly in love can get a deferrment for a few years, to be together. It isn’t true, and when they discover it isn’t true they accept it pretty much without protest. Tommy’s personally angry, he isn’t politically angry. And they only imagined being able to defer, not to escape. That was the most they could hope for.

Some critics have suggested it’s implausible that a whole class of people could be created to donate and die and yet been permitted to drive around from centre to centre and go into shops and service stations. I have no problem with it. The worst tortures are the ones you do to yourself. They are a class, they know their place.

Never Let Me Go is an intensely British book, as is The Remains of the Day. Ishiguro was born in Japan and emigrated to Britain as a child and grew up there. I think these are books that could only be written by someone utterly steeped in a culture who has nevertheless always been something of an outsider in it. The donors in Never Let Me Go grumble and accept and go on in a scarily recognisable way. I was once in the Lake District with a group of friends. We came to a hotel advertising “afternoon teas.“ It was afternoon and we were tired and wanted tea—but my friends, of working class origin, all felt that going into the hotel wouldn’t be appropriate, that it wasn’t for them. I dragged them in and as we sat there (drinking better tea for less money and in much nicer chairs than we’d have had if we’d walked another mile into the village) I realised that they were all acting as if they’d got away with something, and that they weren’t comfortable. This entirely trivial incident sticks with me because it’s the way the British class system works—it’s not got much to do with money, nothing stops people from going where they don’t belong except their sense that it isn’t where they belong. This is the inexorable pressure that keeps Ishiguro’s clones where they belong, and it’s a lot scarier than barbed wire and dogs.

James Goetsch
1. Jedikalos
That is a very interesting incident you relate about your friends and the afternoon tea: it gives me a real sense for that world, that place, and how different their world is from mine. It makes me want to examine my ingrained American reactions more closely, to identify the strange and disturbing in my habitual patterns. And could your friends recognize their attitude? Does awareness of these patterns make them begin to lose their power over us? Or did you find it would be condescending in some way to discuss these things with them, as is you were looking down on their reactions? Being alive and aware is so strange and terrible and wonderful. Thanks for the review: I will be sure to read the book.
Jon Evans
2. rezendi
This is, as I've mentioned in the past, one of my very, very favourite books. And I'm not even sure it's my favourite Ishiguro; I'm also a huge fan of The Unconsoled...

I do have one ... not exactly bone to pick; more like unresolved uncertaintly wrt NLMG. I didn't quite get that discovery-of-the-abandoned-boat sequence near the end (which now I'm hoping I remember correctly!) It was oddly and inexplicably moving, perhaps because Ishiguro is a genius, but it seemed somehow disconnected from the rest of the book.
Jon Evans
3. rezendi
Oh, also, for those who don't know, it's being adapted into a movie, starring Keira Knightley, and with a screenplay by Alex Garland (which gives me hope; he wrote the books The Beach and The Tesseract, and the scripts for 28 Days Later and Sunshine.) I believe principal photography has already begun.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
Ugh, a movie. Ugh, Kiera Knightley, how entirely wrong she would be! It would be very hard to do well. So much of it is the voice, and when you're actually looking at total impoverishment it's going to be hard to do that "I am so lucky and privileged". Also, Knightley can't do any accent but her own, which is just totally wrong. Gah.
CD Covington
5. ccovington
I don't have anything particularly profound to say, but I really liked this book. It was definitely uncomfortable, but it was so amazingly real. I described it to my friends as "a beautiful punch to the gut."

The class issues in Britain that you mention are interesting; being American I hadn't noticed that aspect.
Kate Nepveu
6. katenepveu

Is this a slit-your-wrist kind of book, ultimately? If you don't mind saying?

And, to lighten the tone considerably, your anecdote reminds me of the time you and I and Emmet were having lunch and _I_ was the one to insist on sending one of _your_ sandwiches back multiple times before they got it right.
7. EmmetAOBrien
kate@6: it was my sandwich, and that wasn't British class issues, it was being used to how low general service standards in Ireland were at the time. Feeling that to complain is basically pointless rather than undeserving per se.
Kate Nepveu
8. katenepveu
I meant that to be a plural-you either-or, since I couldn't remember precisely whose, and revised the clarification out. Sorry.

(But I'd thought I'd also remembered some joking comments about guilt as deterrent too, or I wouldn't have mentioned it.)
Iain McCoy
9. iainm
I read Never Let Me Go a while ago, and I remember it being simply gorgeous.

I also felt like I was forever being rickrolled by the title.
Jo Walton
10. bluejo
Kate: It does not have a happy ending. It's the sort of thing you want to read when you're on a fairly even keel.

I remember the incident of the sandwiches. Your confident belief in the possibility of good service is like my confident belief in the possibility of trains -- something that belongs to another continent, but which can become true if held to sufficiently strongly. We were resigned, you weren't. And yes, there is an element of this in that.
11. intertext
I've been teaching Never Let Me Go to 1st year college students. They love it, and they are moved by it, and of course there are so many things to talk about in it. They all get very upset by the fact that the clones don't fight back, but we are able to draw parallels with colonized people and the holocaust and so on - it's a wonderful novel. Thanks for your lovely comments on it.
12. Sci-Fi 4EVA
Why would anyone clone a whole person for spare parts when they can just clone the individual organs much more easily!

This sort of story is what happens when so-called literary writers try sci-fi!
Josh Jasper
13. joshjasper
I can see it as an exploration of an implausible idea, in contrast to the degrees of use we put other people to - the child laborer in Indonesia, the near slave labor conditions in the Marshall Islands, etc...

Ionesco used absurdity in his play Rhinoceros to illustrate how fascist thought might look from an angle. This book seems to be looking at capitalist and cultural and economic privilege in the same way.

I'm surprised no one mentioned Neal Shusterman's "Unwind", which has the a very similar premise, but characters with a variety of responses. Shusterman's book has it's own horrors.

But the horror of a total acceptance of the politics is a different thing, and maps better to a discussion of economic privilege. That creates conditions so monstrous that we really don't have the will to talk about them on a day to day basis. we blindly accept horrors committed on people across the globe, but this is what it would look like if those people were us.
Jo Walton
14. bluejo
SciFi 4Eva: I think you have to accept that it's not for spare parts, it's for some kind of other thing, not just because that doesn't make sense but because "spare parts" wouldn't cure the things it's mentioned that they cure.

But I have seen handwaves just as stupid in books by genre writers. I mean without even having to go to The Matrix.
Justin Adair
15. Hobbyns
Love this book. Still, whenever it's mentioned and whenever it becomes a discussion of cloning I feel obligated out of a perhaps misguided sense of loyalty to bring up "Spares" by Michael Marshall Smith. It's somewhat hard to find, but this hardboiled, noirish pre-Richard Morgan SF book is a masterpiece. The evil older uncle, if you will, of NLMG.

I think it was completely and horribly mutated into a movie called "The Island" but we can exercise our selective memory override systems and just forget that one ever happened.
Nicholas Alcock
16. NullNix
Also it's not stupid to assume that whole bodies with brains might be needed even if you only wanted single organs out of them. That's how the organs normally grow, after all, and many organs (like muscle) *require* nervous input and constant activity to grow correctly.

Perhaps they have the tech for that, but not the tech to grow parts of people on scaffolds. Oh also they are morally appalling, but we knew that. :)
Jo Walton
17. bluejo
NullNix: That possibility is actually hinted at in the book, in the notably icky context of sex being a good thing to give your organs a proper workout.
Scott Wyngarden
18. SWyngarden
In Miss Emily's conversation near the end of the book, I got the sense that much of the donation program hadn't been examined since it first became possible to begin it.

From that, it seems very plausible that when the program was initially set up organ scaffolding wasn't possible. After that, inertia and the general public's chosen lack of knowledge about the program keep the whole bodied donation system intact, as it were.
19. tracy medek
I found myself bordering on irate with the characters in "Never Let Me Go", and what I perceived as their complacent resignation to their unjust fates, for most of the novel. Even as I grasped what Ishiguro was deftly illuminating about many facets of human nature, I raged against the characters(characters who are nothing if not sympathetic), in my head. A single sentence in this review (all of which was astute) helped to mitigate my fury. "The donors in Never Let Me Go grumble and accept and go on in a scarily recognisable way." Ah yes, and here I sit, a drone in a cubicle.....angry at the world and all its opressors, and now, more acutely than ever, livid with the worst oppressor of all...me.
20. Matthew (@thebibliofreak)
I completely love this novel, read my thoughts here: http://bit.ly/jMaDcG
21. Loraine
Great review! Here's mine if you don't mind: http://lorxiebookreviews.blogspot.com/2013/05/never-let-me-go-by-kashuo-ishiguro.html

Thanks and have a nice day! :)

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