Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Review of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s second novel The Remains of the Day is a masterpiece of fiction.  Subtlety its middle name, the book presents the quiet limitations we impose on ourselves (versus those imposed from external sources) in poignant, elegant fashion that speaks to the true nature of humanity.  The story of a butler so focused on his sense of duty that he denies himself the basic aspects of existence, it’s one of the main reasons Ishiguro recently won the Nobel for literature.  Equally subtle but less believable in execution, Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go is another strong reason.

Plot-wise, Never Let Me Go is straight-forward: three young people grow up in what is essentially an orphanage, coming of age with the idea they are clones who will someday be organ donors for ordinary people.  The real meat of the novel is found, however, in the interaction of the three and the perspectives of the world as they evolve.

Like The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go is highly introspective, integrating the tiny but telling details of quotidian life and relationships.  The story is told through the eyes of Cathy, an intelligent, sensitive young woman trying to fit in yet retain her identity among the other young people at their boarding home.  Having a troubled relationship with a fellow student Ruth, the two, through a series of events and compromises, form a strong but strange friendship.  The third primary character is an emotionally volatile young man named Tom who is initially bullied by the other boys, but after realizing certain things, comes into his own and is able to form stronger relationships with others.  The art the young people produce of odd importance to their overseers, Ishiguro slowly unveils the underlying logic to their situation in the boarding home, all the while the young attempt to reconcile their state state as clones with the wider world beyond and themselves.

But for as vulnerable and elegantly written Never Let Me Go represents humanity (that is the reason to read the novel), it never convinced me of its premise, not even close.  The main characters all know their situation: clones who will one day donate their organs so that normal humans can continue to live, death the natural result of the donation.  Yet, none of them had anything close to a crisis of mortality.  None freaked out, flew off the handle, or tried to escape their imminent death.  Like lambs to the slaughter, each accepted their fate and did what needed to be done.  This struck me as anti-human—not in the sense that they internalized their purpose (for certain that is one natural reaction), rather in that none, zero, zilch rebelled.  After all, if there is any basic instinct to humanity, it is to survive, yet the characters show no interest when pressed. This is not to say Never Let Me Go should have been a classic hero’s narrative wherein the victimized clone rises to freedom by defeating their oppressors, rather that Ishiguro’s characters never seemed to even entertain thoughts of somehow exiting their undesirable situation and continue living.  This is made all the more strange by the fact each is given the freedom to live a relatively normal life; they could have escaped their inevitable fate at any time.  But none did, as if duty were somehow stronger than survival in all cases. 

The disparity between humanity in the book and humanity in the real world should not deter the reader, however.  I am glad I read Never Let Me Go.  It possesses the same sensitivity and subtle portrayal of existence as The Remains of the Day; Cathy, Ruth, and Tom are characters straight from real life that deal with their situation and changing circumstances in relatable fashion.  Except, of course, clinging to the vestiges of mortality.  Never Let Me Go wanted to be a fully human and humane novel, but given this disparity I couldn’t buy fully into it.  Great novel with a glaring omission…


  1. The disparity you talk about also drove me up the wall when I first read it, but over time I realised that it's the entire point of the novel. The clones accept their fate meekly without imagining an alternative, which is baffling, until you think about how many of us also meekly accept our fates as shelf stackers or cashiers or, in my case, media company drones; as cogs in a social system which only values us for what we it can extract from us.

    I find it very interesting to put Never Let Me Go alongside The Remains of the Day. The first is about the cages society builds for us; the second is about the cages we build for ourselves.

    1. I get that, and I agree that in 95% of cases, humans accept their lot. But there is always that 5% for which the idea of freedom burns so strongly that they would rather die than be shackled. As simple examples, the number of black slaves in America who died trying to escape, or the number of Middle Eastern refugees willing to risk death in a boat and eventual deportation to escape a seemingly more imminent death in their homelands. The clones in Never Let Me Go face an analogous future. I thought Tommy, with the rashness of his emotions, would be the character who developed into a rebel, who tried to escape his lot. But he didn't, and neither the others, and therefore I felt Ishiguro overlooked this small but vital aspect of being free, of being animal, of being human. I'm trying to remember if Cathy even questioned her fate. Perhaps I'm guilty of overlaying my thoughts on all humanity, but I know that were I to be in Cathy's shoes, I would at least wonder about the other possibilities for my life beyond donation...