Book Recommendation – Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
When Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel prize for literature I have to admit I was rather surprised. For starters, I’m not used to actually being familiar with the names of contemporary winners. Sure, I know William Golding of Lord of the Flies fame won it back in the day, and every school kid in Ireland, at least among my generation, knew that the poet Seamus Heaney nabbed the honour back in nineteen ninety five. Still, I’ve generally thought any writer worthy enough for the Nobel committee to consider for the award is probably outside of my wheelhouse. I really have no idea what’s going on in the modern literature scene, either on the bestseller shelf or on the more obscure literary side of things. So yeh, it was a bit of a surprise to see an author I’d previously read splashed on the front page of a handful of news outlets the day he won. Moreover, I was also a little surprised that they actually thought he was all that good. To put that in context, I’d recently read a short story collection of his called Nocturnes, which I quite liked, but it was his science fiction novel, Never Let Me Go, that made me take pause. At a certain time in my life if you asked me whether there was ever a book I wanted to throw across the room I probably would have mentioned this pointlessly drawn out story in which a group of conceited school children struggle with their petty rivalries and love interests while they remain blissfully ignorant of the dystopian fate that awaits them. Of course, this is a recommendation video, so obviously I came to another opinion at some stage, but to understand that, I should probably go into a little more detail on the book first.
Never Let Me Go opens in a private English boarding school, where the students grow from children to young adults. The story focuses on three of these kids, two girls and a boy, who gradually begin to sense that there’s a lot more going on in the outside world than what they’re being told. Though their days are spent in highly privileged comfort, they have the vague sense that something terrible is happening out there, though as many a teenager is able to do, they pay little attention to this suspicion and concentrate instead on the much less dramatic things that happen to them. Arts and crafts are held in unusually high regard in the school, so it becomes a source of self-esteem for students who show a talent for it and an extreme source of frustration for those who don’t. The relationship between the two girls and the boy becomes a bit of a love triangle too, so there’s plenty to distract them from terrible possibilities outside of the school, and though I’ll avoid any major spoilers here, I’ll just say that the story continues well beyond their school years so that the truly twisted revelation of what’s happening doesn’t act as a full stop on the story, but rather, becomes a fact of their existence that they struggle to digest for the remainder of their lives. That said, while the discovery of what’s happening is inarguably repulsive, it isn’t treated like a twist in an M Night Shyamalan movie, but like a slow revelation, such that their comprehension of their horrible reality is experienced like that of a frog in water, slowly brought up to a boil. In a way, it’s not too different to how young adults in our own time are forced to normalise any number of problems with the world. It’s extraordinary how Ishiguro manages to keep the reader on tenterhooks as to what could be happening, right up until the very end, yet already has you acclimated to the idea long before it’s actually stated. Not to say I appreciated this on my initial introduction to the book.
I think I was about nineteen years old when I first read Never Let Me Go and if this anecdote I’m about to share is anything to go by, I had the emotional intelligence of a potato.
I remember picking up a copy of the book in Chapters bookstore in Dublin, back when I used to have a Battlestar Galactica patch sewn onto my backpack. Never Let Me Go was on sale, it had a pretty mysterious cover, and it seemed different enough from everything else I was reading to merit a purchase. What I ended up discovering was that I had apparently purchased a teenage romance. Worse than that though, it was about a bunch of posh English school kids whose self-esteem was tied up in making pottery for their art teacher. What little science fiction element there was in the story was so abstracted and vague it seemed to me that it might as well have been an episode of Dawson’s Creek. The fact that I actually did watch Dawson’s Creek at the time didn’t really help the matter. Dawson’s Creek was a pretty passive experience. All I had to do was sit there while James Van Der Beek’s big square head squinted through the screen. But the idea that I was sitting down for hours on end reading what I took to be a school girl romance was embarrassing enough that when I finished reading the book I ended up giving it to my mam and insisting that she keep it on her bookshelf instead of mine. Of course, the only reason I’m not embarrassed to tell this story now is because I’ve long since grown to love a well-told romance story. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez is one of my all-time favourite novels and I’d be hard-pressed to make a top ten movie list without including Kar-Wai Wong’s In The Mood For Love. And all of this is on top of the fact that there’s far, far more to Never Let Me Go than a superficial love triangle between three teenagers.
Like I’ve already said, Never Let Me Go features a pretty disturbing science fiction element that runs throughout the entire story. When I read the novel fifteen years ago, it was frustrating to me that a complete explanation of what exactly was happening to these characters was always on the horizon, just out of grasp. It didn’t matter that as the reader you had a pretty good idea of what it was, after a certain point, or that the characters themselves seemed to have a strong inkling about it. The fact that none of these kids ever actually outright said what it was made it feel like it wasn’t of any particular importance in the story, as if it were just inserted like some kind of MacGuffin to give string the reader along with as we followed them to their inevitable dooms. It’s funny to look back at the book now and realise the thing I hated most about it is what makes it so great. This habit the characters had of claiming to want to confront the mysterious plan that controls their fate, yet constantly turning a blind eye to it all in lieu of their feeling for one another is obviously a very real reaction people have to ongoing tragedies playing out in the world today. And the way that Ishiguro allows the story to unfold naturally without any heavy information dump means that you’re in the thick of it with these kids. Even as the book goes on and they live their lives full in the knowledge that it’s under the point of a knife that’s set to fall, you can’t help but latch onto the same hope they do, that somehow, beyond all reason, the one thing that could save them from their horrible fate is their love for one another. As coming of age stories go, it’s probably one of the most tragic ones I’ve ever read, in that, while these kinds of things generally have the young protagonists take on some sad lesson that at least allows them to feel empowered by knowing it, Never Let Me Go lumps its characters with a truth that doesn’t allow them a sense of control for even a second.
All told, I still don’t think I’m in a position to say whether or not Kazuo Ishiguro should have won the Nobel prize. In one way, I do feel like it’s kind of ridiculous how much prestige is attached to the honour. The idea that there’s only one writer per year, one writer above all others that deserves to be recognised as having contributed to the enrichment of humanity, sometimes feels to me like a bit of a stretch. Ask any decent writer and I’m pretty sure they’ll consider themselves to be a part of an ecosystem that thrives through collaboration and in which they’re no higher on the food chain than any other. But of course, I’m as drawn to the authors that receive such lavish praise as anybody else and it’s a time testing way of encouraging conversation about what we value in art. Ishiguro also wrote The Remains of The Day, which in light of my reevaluation this book, I’m extremely curious to read. And he wrote The Buried Giant, which funnily enough, I’ve already read and thought was a bit of a failed attempt at fantasy in the same way I once thought Never Let Me Go was a failed attempt at science fiction. But as evidenced by my storied relationship with the man, these type of things sometimes take time to brew.
I remember this old Woody Allen interview where he talks about seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time and how he was struck by the realisation that Stanley Kubrick was lightyears ahead of him as an artist. I don’t know if he ever felt like he reached the heights that Stanley Kubrick as the years went on, but regardless, I can certainly relate to the mixture of horror and admiration one can experience when you realise there’s a whole other level of communication possible and that everything you’ve been doing up until this point falls far short of it. Frankly, it’s happened to me more than one time and though I might be jinxing it for you, this could be an opportunity to allow it to happen to you too. If you’re looking for a book that grabs you by the heart and slowly starts to squeeze, I can’t think of a better one to consider than Never Let Me Go. You might not feel how tight the fist gets when you first finish it, but if you’re anything like me, you will in a few years time.