Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Best days of our lives…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Kathy H, at the age of thirty-one, is coming to the end of her career as a carer and looks back at her life, especially her time at Hailsham, the school where she lived throughout her childhood, and the friends she made there. Even as children they all knew Hailsham was a special place and that they too were special, marked out to be carers first, and then donors. But it is only in the last few years that Kathy has come to question that path, and to wonder, along with her best friends Ruth and Tommy, if anyone is ever allowed to deviate from it…

Coming to this book so late it feels almost pointless to avoid spoilers, since I expect almost everyone already knows what the book is about. But I’ll try anyway! It’s probably best described as a literary science fiction set in a dystopian world but in our own recent past – the late 20th century, that is. The core subject is one that has been done many times before and since in science fiction, but is no less powerful for that. The first thing that made it feel different for me is that the narrator, though she sometimes questions things, is ultimately accepting of the life that is mapped out for her. This is not about a struggle against injustice, a battle for rights – it is a portrait of brainwashing, and of a society that has learned how to look the other way.

Secondly, until very near the end we only meet the students of Hailsham and other schools of the same kind, and later when they’re grown up, the carers and donors they become. The other side of society, where the “normal” people live – the ones we’d be in this world – is left almost completely blank, which I found made the book unsettling and rather ambiguous. What happened to this society? A past war is mentioned, but just once in passing. But the roads that Kathy drives along as she moves between the donors under her care are usually empty and the world seems as if it has been somehow depopulated. Are they, the normal people, rich? Poor? Do they have residual health problems from whatever event led to the depopulation? Do they struggle with the morality of what is being done in these isolated schools? Or do they perhaps not know? Or not care?

I felt it was easy to work out pretty early on what was going on with regards to the carers and donors, and I think that’s deliberate. The central mystery is more to do with why Hailsham is seen as special even among the students of the other schools. At Hailsham a great emphasis is placed on art and creativity, and a mysterious Madame visits occasionally and takes away the best of the students’ artworks. The rumour among the children is that Madame runs a Gallery where this art is shown to the public, but when they reach adulthood this explanation seems less satisfactory, and Kathy’s friends have another theory, which they will eventually set out to prove or disprove.

Kazuo Ishiguro

Kathy is a wonderful narrative voice and I grew to care about her very much. Her changing relationships over the years with her two closest friends, Ruth and Tommy, are beautifully portrayed, and while Kathy doesn’t spend much time emoting, nevertheless the book is deeply emotional. She looks back at the three of them in childhood with an adult eye, and can therefore evaluate their interactions more objectively in retrospect. She knows their weaknesses and her own, and sometimes their friendship is strained almost to breaking point, but those early experiences hold them in a kind of web of their own making, a web that may feel like a trap sometimes but is fundamentally spun from love. In Hailsham, no families visit, there are no vacations or interaction with the outside world, so the children there are all each other have. They are not treated cruelly; they are simply trained and conditioned to accept the role for which society has destined them.

I don’t think I can say much more about the story without getting into spoiler territory. It’s a quietly devastating book that shows how easily mankind can create “others” and then treat those others as lesser. And more than that, it also shows how those others can be taught to think of themselves that way too, and to accept the injustices they are shown as normal, even right. It’s a continuation of the science fiction tradition of “mad science”, only here we spend our time not with the mad scientists but with the results of their experiments. It is the bastard child of Frankenstein and Dr Moreau, but here the monsters look just like us, and act like us, and think like us. So the question is, why then are they not us?

Book 10 of 12

This was The People’s Choice for October, and a wonderful choice for which I thank you, People! Keep up the good work!

Amazon UK Link

64 thoughts on “Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

  1. You have that kind of caste-thinking in the lines of “we are better then those lowly born” everywhere. You find it among the children of brahman, nobles, wealthy, politicians, etc… The opposite can be found about those born among the untouchables, slum dwellers, etc… who actively discourage their children to strive for a better life “because it’s just some fancy day dreaming”. Hence you get teenage pregnancies, gang affiliation, illiteracy, third generation welfare kids, etc.. People who´re born into society’s stratosphere have absolutely no clue of the daily struggles that Norm and Norma are dealing with. Nevertheless, they’re the ones who’re lining up at the psychotherapy practices.

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    • Yes, it’s exactly that kind of thing, and although there was the science fiction element to this, the fact that it’s similar to real-life stuff is what made it so powerful, I think. I always think about that in terms of feminism and “the patriarchy” too – on the whole it is women who condition their daughters to accept a subordinate role, because of course they were conditioned by their own mothers. It’s a hard cycle to break once any group has been trained to think that their subordinate role is justified in some way.

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  2. Great review, and I’m so glad you enjoyed this so much because I’ve been meaning to revisit it. Ishiguro is so good at characterisation – I’ve had very mixed experiences with his work, but that is the thing that’s consistently excellent across all his books. I agree that the fact we don’t really know what’s happened makes it all the more unsettling.

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    • I’ve only read this and The Remains of the Day long ago, and it doesn’t seem to have left much impression on me. I really must read more of him, and re-read Remains! Yes, I thought leaving the outside society so undescribed was hugely effective. It also meant there was no ambiguity about which “side” the reader should be on.

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    • I believe it was your review of this or another book of his that led me to add this one to my TBR, so thank you! 😀 Funnily enough, I don’t remember The Remains of the Day having much impact on me, but it’s so long since I read it – time for a re-read, I think!

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      • The Remains of the Day was my book of the year when I read it and is still looking like a contender for book of the decade 🙂
        I still haven’t watched the film, am afraid it won’t live up to the book (even with Sir Anthony Hopkins playing the main role).

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        • Well, that’s a recommendation! I’ll definitely have to re-read it now! 😀 I did see the film and my recollection was of it being fine, but not really wowing me. I love Emma Thompson but somehow I wasn’t convinced that either she or Hopkins were terribly well suited to these roles. Maybe they were too big stars – less well known actors might have been better?

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  3. I’m one of the few who hasn’t read this one. Remains of the Day is an all-time favourite but I’m wary of revisiting it in case the magic has gone. And I think that’s partly why I’ve not attempted this book. I really must though. Glad you enjoyed it FF

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    • Funnily enough, I don’t remember The Remains of the Day having the same kind of impact on me, though I enjoyed it, but it’s so long since I read it. Time for a re-read, I think! This one is a bit different because of the science fiction aspects, but like all good SF it’s still fundamentally about what makes us human. Hope you enjoy it if you decide to read it! 😀

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    • Haha, yes, Goodreads and the blog often make my memory seem much better than it is too! I think it’s the way he doesn’t describe the “normal” society that makes it so unsettling – what happened to them? Do they have any kind of excuse for what they have done?

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        • Yes, dystopian societies are always more believable when they don’t stray too far from real life, and sadly this was all too believable. It would be nice to think that we wouldn’t let it happen, but there are so many things we do let happen and just keep our faces turned resolutely away…

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  4. The People are very happy that you’re glad you read this one, FictionFan. And really is one of those things we humans do. We create ‘Others.’ In some ways that strengthens the ‘We,’ and I suppose that makes people feel more secure. But it has devastating consequences. I do like it when a book invites me to really think…

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    • Yes, I think science fiction is a great way to explore that kind of “us and them” thing without getting bogged down in the specifics of a real-life “us and them” situation. It lets you examine the idea without getting distracted by facts, in a sense. And he does it really well in this one!

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  5. Yes, good work People who chose this, since I must confess that I was not one of them. I tend to choose the one-star time wasters. 😊😊😊 You know, the ones whose authors wouldn’t win the Nobel Prize. Who needs great literature when there are so many wretched books to read?

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    • Hahaha, I must admit when I look at some of the books lingering on my TBR I wonder what on earth made me think I wanted to read them in the first place, so I don’t hold The People responsible at all for my poor choices! But I was glad this one turned out to be a success – one was overdue… 😉

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  6. Remains of the Day is an admirable story and received laudable kudos which makes it difficult to understand why his other works center less on straightforward plot with realistic settings and drift more into dystopian or sci-fi.

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    • This and The Remains of the Day are the only books of his I’ve read, and it does seem like an odd contrast of genres, though stylistically I think they’re quite similar, and both fundamentally concentrate on the “human condition”. I always think good science fiction is a great way to look at how humans behave as a general idea, rather than getting caught up in the specifics that a real setting demands.

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  7. A great review FF and I’m glad you enjoyed (?) it. You’re absolutely right when you say it’s not that they’re treated cruelly it’s that they’re trained and conditioned to accept their lot, it is devastating and I also found it shocking; as soon as I thought I’d got used to a situation something would happen (the marketing department for example) that would shock me again.

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    • Yes, I found the lack of protest very unsettling, and more realistic in fact than the freedom fighter or social justice warrior approach often is. I always think that patriarchal societies exist not because men enforce them, but because mothers condition their daughters to accept their subordinate role, having of course been conditioned by their own mothers. Boys meantime are conditioned, often again by their mothers, to be warriors and alpha males and patriarchs! So I found the acceptance in this one chillingly believable…

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    • I suspect it’s one of these books that is much better known over here than on your side of the pond, but the themes are pretty universal. The People chose well! About time too, after the last couple… 😉

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  8. I really thought this book was effective, but I didn’t see it as being placed in the past. Instead, I thought it seemed past-like because the children were being given gifts of old junk that other people had thrown away, like the record she liked so much. I believe the novel is supposed to futuristic dystopian.

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  9. I’ve not read anything by this author, though I’ve certainly heard his name often enough. I think I’ll tag this one at the library so I don’t forget about it.

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    • I’ve only read a couple of his books – this and The Remains of the Day, which isn’t science fiction at all. I think you’d probably enjoy this one, and I know he’s done others with a science fiction aspect which I’m hoping to get to sometime.

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    • It’s certainly not uplifting, is it? But I found the characterisation so good that I was able to cope with the inevitability. Definitely unsettling though! Funnily enough I don’t remember The Remains of the Day having the same impact on me, but it’s years since I read it – time for a re-read, I think!

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  10. Yay, I am so glad you enjoyed it! As you may know it is a favourite of mine. One of the things which is scary about Ishiguro’s dystopian is that it’s quite close to our world in many ways, which made the ongoings even more unsettling.

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    • Yes, I think when a dystopia gets too far from “real life”, it begins to lose its impact. This felt as if the “normal” world of the book wasn’t a million miles away from our own, so it made it impossible not to wonder how the people could be accepting what was happening, and that in turn forces us to wonder whether we too would accept it in certain circumstances…

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  11. An amazing book and portrait of how humans are conditioned to fit into ‘their place’ in society. So insidiously effective here and in real life. The world Kathy moves through does seem spookily empty and down-at-heel if I’m remembering correctly, all too close to our throw-away world. So glad you enjoyed this one!

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    • Yes, I thought the way he kept the perspective exclusively to the children made the outside world quite disturbingly vague. Much more effective than if he had detailed everything that led the society to go down this route. Sometimes less really is more! I’m looking forward to exploring his other books now.

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  12. Great review! I absolutely love Ishiguro’s writing. I read this many years ago, well before the movie, and I didn’t figure out the ending until well into the book and I’m glad I was able to read it completely blind like that. I’ve read it again since and it still is so thoughtful and powerful, even knowing the whole truth of who these kids are.

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    • This is only the second one I’ve read, the other being The Remains of the Day long ago, which I liked but don’t remember wowing me in the way this one did. I thought the way he kept the perspective so narrow in this one really made the outside world seem disturbing – what caused the people to start this? I haven’t seen the movies, so didn’t know the story either, and I definitely think that made it more unsettling. Not sure it would work so well as a film, with the book being so much inside Kathy’s head…

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      • I love all of his work. He has such a thoughtfulness and he holds that focus so well on his characters and topics. I feel like he follows a theme through a few books so that his works naturally clump together in my mind. Never Let Me Go fits more with his recent work like The Buried Giant and Klara and the Sun while The Remains of the Day fits with his other historical books, particularly Artist of the Floating World.

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        • I had a look yesterday to see which one to go for next and decided to try one of his earlier historical books, and I finally selected Artist of the Floating World. So I’m glad you mention it as a good one!

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    • It’s only an occasional book that stays in my memory too, and I suspect this will be one of them. I think it’s the brilliant way he keeps the perspective so narrow that makes it so disturbing – much more effective than if he’d explained in detail why society had gone down this route…

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    • I’m just completely shocked that that girl formerly known as Miss Eight is about to finish high school! Where did that decade go?? I hope you both enjoy this one – it’ll be an excellent one to study and discuss in class, I think.

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