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R&R 091 | Never Let Me Go

Note: I did my best in this review to keep the book's mystery intact. I want you, review readers who are considering reading this book, to have the same experience as I did. I am not disclosing any direct plot information. No spoilers.
The photo? You'll just have to read the book to find out what it means.

Kazuo Ishiguro
Never Let Me Go
First published in: 2005
This edition: Vintage International, 2005
ISBN: 1-4000-7877-6
Genre: science- fiction, drama
Pages: 288
Cover design: Keenan. Cover photo: Gabrielle Revere / Getty. Author photo: Emily Mott.

R&R 091 | Never Let Me Go

I started NEVER LET ME GO, by Kazuo Ishiguro, uninformed. I had no idea what it was going to be about, save from the information provided on the back cover. I hazarded a guess and figured it would be about relationships between three young people (Kathy, Tommy and Ruth) who used to go to a boarding school together, who've experienced something intense together, shaping their lives in adulthood. I expected a heartbreaking story about friendships, even doomed relationships. Perhaps a love triangle.

It was the knowledge that this book (a Man Booker finalist) has been received well that made me want to read it one day. It was the idea that it could be a sad story about troubled friendships, literary and complex but cliche-riddled nonetheless, that kept me from actually opening it. I honestly thought I wouldn't really like it.
If you're like me in this sense, and have this book in your bookcase, unread, I will tell you now to remember the first part, and forget the second part: 1) this book had been received well, and for good reason, 2) but this isn't another one of thoooose stories. NEVER LET ME GO is far from what I thought it would be. (Shame on me, reviewer – never judge a book until you've actually read it.)
Open it, and experience for yourself.

Reading this book is like standing outside during a cold and foggy morning. It's beautiful in a way, the mystery of it, and you can't abandon it. You linger, wondering what's behind it, what landscape will reveal itself after the fog drifts away. The fog, however, slowly envelops you, it squeezes tightly, coming closer. It's harder to see ahead of you and around you. It's harder to breathe. Heart beats faster, a tightness in your chest. You get a little scared. Yet you stay rooted to the ground, fascinated.

Never Let Me Go describes a frightening dystopia, a future where life is no longer sacred (or perhaps a little too sacred). There aren't many books out there which have been so unsettling in my experience.

Kathy H. is the 31 year-old narrator of this book, reminiscing about her childhood years spent at Hailsham boarding school. As she begins to tell her story, Kathy immediately uses a few terms as if they should be natural and known to all of us – I'm talking about specific words that I won't spoil for you (despite the fact that they are mentioned on page 1), words that hint at a world which is wrong on so many levels. By reading those two words, the readers realize instantly that this really isn't a drama in the traditional sense – I was proven wrong in my 'prejudice' towards this book just by reading page 1.

A few sentences in, and you can't help but feel uncomfortable with the understanding that something very, very icky is going on at Hailsham boarding school, and that these children – Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, but also their classmates and fellow students – don't stand a chance.

What's so great about NEVER LET ME GO isn't even so much about the debate that can be sparked by reading this book; it sure does make you think and wonder where you draw certain lines. But what strikes me here, now, and what makes me want to tell everyone to read this book, is how Ishiguro managed to make me feel so much at the same time, and so intensely.

Throughout this read I have been through a blend of emotions. I have been fascinated, curious. I have been appalled, sad. At times I marveled, a sense of wonder. A smile here and there, at the deceitfully happy moments the children did have. The cruelty of it all emphasized further. I dreaded the outcome, yet I wanted to know.

…and then I wished I didn't know.

Ishiguro plays on the reader's feelings by never explicitly mentioning what's going on; knowing less only makes the reader feel less at ease. Rather brilliant, to let us read between the lines. Telling us, yet keeping us in the dark – where it's scary. Telling us and not telling us – much like what happens to the children in this book. Wow. Amazing tactic, really. What the children know, we know. Not directly, not exactly, not explicitly. But we know.

The narration adds to this feeling: Kathy's voice is almost dissociated from the horror of it all, yet the innocence is blatant. Throughout most of the story she reflects back on her childhood. A childhood which to her is normal, to us horrible. There's hardly any emotion. She's so eerily calm.

What makes it even worse is that Kathy, Tommy, Ruth and the other children (even in adolescence and adulthood) simply accept their fates. They can leave Hailsham to go on a day trip, but it never occurs to them to keep on going, to leave and never look back.
The fog image I used to describe the reading experience seems to apply to Kathy and her friends as well: the fog surrounds them always, holding them in their place. They don't know what is beyond it. They don't realize that whatever it is, it's there to be discovered.

On a different note: Ishiguro regularly shifts between the now and the past and then even-further-in-the-past, and it can get confusing for the reader. Via a reference of some kind the reader catches on to where we are in time, but it seems a little chaotic at times. I feel quite nitpicky, pointing that out, but it honestly bothered me at times. But it's not a dealbreaker: I loved this book.

I admire Ishiguro for writing such a bold book in such a subdued – but ultimately far more effective – manner. The book is absolutely not what I expected it to be. It is so much better. In fact, I can say that it is one of the best books I have read in my life. So haunting. And so incredibly heartbreaking. I've read this book a while ago, but it's staying with me months later. The title is aptly chosen. This book? Kathy's story? I'll never let it go.

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R&R series © Karin E. Lips 2008-2010 (and beyond)