Rating: 4 stars
Read for the Reader’s Room March Madness challenge
The first book I read by Kazuo Ishiguro was An Artist of the Floating World. My mum bought it for me from the book club man who used to visit the library where she worked. It transported me and led me to other books by Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans. I haven’t read anything by him for years, so for the March Madness challenge I decided I’d nominate and read Never Let Me Go. I haven’t seen the film, but I knew vaguely what the story is about.
If Never Let Me Go can be classified as sci-fi, then it’s the kind of sci-fi that I like – something that could feasibly happen in a setting that I can imagine myself existing in. The setting of this novel seemed like a parallel universe to ours. I don’t know that it is sci-fi, though. The science fiction aspects aren’t to the fore in the plot. I think it’s more about the slowly creeping realisation that life isn’t quite what we would like it to be, or what we think it is, which is a universal experience. It’s also about trying to find meaning in life, and trying to delay the inevitable, to grasp a few more precious moments that might help you to understand what the point of it all was.
As with the other Ishiguro novels I’ve read, I liked the gentle pace and the way the story murmurs along. It’s similar to the first of his books I read, in that we only hear the voice of a single narrator, someone who occasionally acknowledges that her perspective might not be accurate or a correct reading of what happened. She’s not an unreliable narrator in the same way as Ono in An Artist of the Floating World, though. She isn’t deluded about what her life has been or become.
I enjoyed the way she told the story, as well, floating from present to past, allowing one memory to trigger another, being side tracked, and occasionally speaking to the reader directly, as though we have potentially shared her experiences.
The premise of the story is revealed slowly, at a pace with the way the characters gradually learn the truth in their youth and assimilate it into their adulthood. That slow build also meant that my empathy for the characters developed slowly. The book is in three sections, and at each transition point I felt more involved in the characters’ lives.
I thought that Ishiguro managed to inhabit the mind of a young girl, through her teenage years, and into adulthood, very well. The school scenes seemed very realistic to me, with the cliques and intrigues, and the obsession with collecting things. It seemed a lot like my school experience, except I didn’t go to a boarding school so had a daily escape from the others in my class.
There was something intriguingly blank about the way the characters reacted to everyday things. As though they had been so sheltered from the rest of the world that they weren’t properly socialised. They are quite naive in some ways, and very unfazed by life in others. Maybe it was the narrator who wasn’t fully socialised and the blankness of her narration made everyone else seem blank, too. Everything is reported in a very matter of fact way. There is reflection on past events, and past thinking about events, but there is never a dramatic change in opinion, merely a ponderous acceptance that perhaps she didn’t have the necessary experience to fully judge a situation back when it happened. Her reactions and processing of things made me think of the way people with autism react to and process things. As though her experience of life was being filtered through a prism with a different angle of deviation to everyone else’s.
The reactions of the people at the Cottages to the Hailsham students were interesting. They made me think of the reactions many people in Britain have to people who have attended boarding school or one of the Oxbridge colleges – as though there is something inherently magical about them, but also something to distrust. Hailsham seems to have a certain mystique for those who weren’t educated there. There are also suggestions that people from the outside world have a cushioning reaction to the students, again similar to the way some people react patronisingly to people who have some form of physical or mental disability.
I was curious about the origins of the students at Hailsham. There is no reference to a life before they joined the school, no suggestion that they were ever babies, or who looked after them before they joined the school. The same is true of the people they encounter after they leave the school, except that there’s no real hint about their lives before they are joined by the Hailsham group. The earliest discussion of their “Possibilities” hints that they were created as school age children, that they didn’t have a pre-school existence.
I felt sad as their lives progressed and changed. Hailsham was an almost womb-like environment, where they had each other’s understanding if not real love and affection. The Cottages were a staging post, a point of transfer where they prepared to live without that close network. Then they were out in the world, isolated somewhat, living alone, doing what they were destined to do. There was a subtle horror about it. It made me think of things I’ve read in the media about children who go through the care system, whose family network breaks down, so that they lose out on childhood and become self reliant, and often untrusting. Love and affection are the things that get us through life. To be deprived of them, to be denied a family, seems a cruel thing.
It made me think about the incredible advances we’ve seen in science and medicine since the mid 20th century, and the responsibility that goes with things like in vitro fertilisation, stem cell research, mapping the human genome. We all have to die of something, and while it is amazing that we have cures and treatments for so many things, and can prevent early and unnecessary deaths (members of my family have been treated for cancer and are still alive as a result), sometimes I think that we shouldn’t intervene too much, or to extremes. My views have been influenced by watching my mum’s decline, and the way the anti-dementia medication prescribed at diagnosis was at best a guess, because the type of dementia a person has is never known until they’re dead and their brain has been dissected, and at worst a cruelty. The medication barely slowed the advance of the disease and gave false hope to mum, keeping her aware of her decline for longer than was necessary. I also don’t like the idea of trying to weed out genetic mutations that result in physical or mental disabilities, or ‘designing’ babies to have a preferred eye or hair colour or gender. The joy of humanity is the richness of its diversity and the fact that, when we create life, we don’t know what we’re getting, and the person we meet has unexpected and unpredictable impacts on those around them.
I hope we never get to the stage of cloning human beings, or creating embryos for the sole purpose of harvesting their organs or stem cells so that the rest of us can go on for longer than is natural. It doesn’t sit right with me.