Monday, November 2, 2009

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - 304 pgs


Book CoverTucked away in the English countryside, the students of Halisham, a seemingly elite boarding school, live an almost idyllic life. As Kathy H. reminisces on the friendships and rivalries of her early life at Halisham, she also begins to touch on the strange and puzzling aspects of the school and her fellow students. For the students of Halisham are special in some undefined and unknowable way, and their futures are clouded and obscured from themselves and each other. Fed only the most basic information about their unusual lives and circumstances, they are reduced to living lives filled with rumor, conjecture and speculation amid the more typical everyday occurrences of childhood. As Kathy begins to unfold her curious tale that spans the unfathomable years of her adolescence, more and more curious facts about the children come to the surface, and eventually their bizarre fate is unmasked. Both lucid and frightening, Never Let Me Go takes its readers to the borders of an unimaginable world, where nothing is what it seems and peculiar things are hidden in plain view.

This is the kind of book that doesn't make its full impact until a few minutes after you have closed the cover. Written in lush but subdued prose, the narrative seems to unfold with a calmness and clarity that belies the book's true nature. From the outset, Ishiguro seems to be able to do something miraculous with this tale. He begins by describing some very commonplace events in the lives of a handful of students at Halisham, but peeking from beneath the more typical story he begins to interject random flashes of theme that seem almost disconnected and alien to the story itself. As more and more of the students' experiences are related it becomes clear that something "other" is going on, but with touches of brilliant technique, the readers of this story, like the characters themselves, are left on the precipice of understanding, splendidly misdirected into believing that things are just as they appear on the surface.

During the middle sections of the story, when both reader and character are just beginning to understand what is going on, a conversation occurs between the characters that documents just how much and in what ways the truths of their existence have been kept from them. In explaining it to each other, they come to conclude that they have been told, yet not told, about themselves, the facts being released to them at a time when it is almost impossible for them to understand them. Later, when these initial facts have set in, they become similar to ingrained truth and make the monstrous reality seem commonplace. It was at this point that I began to realize that this is exactly what was happening to the reader. It was the perfect specimen of art imitating life and it was one of the things that made the book so distinguished.

There were really two tales going on: the somewhat placid and serene tale of life as a Halisham student, full to the brim with the minutia of friendships, relationships and education, and the hidden and horrendous reality that was taking place underneath. Throughout the story it became clear by degrees what was really in store for these children, but I still found it both shocking and distressing when everything was finally brought to the surface in the last third of the book. Much of what was planned for them was spelled out in a direct way, but most of the horror of these discoveries was based on what was implied about what had been going on and its inevitable conclusion. The full story, once revealed, was extremely sad and I felt that Ishiguro was really able to capture the despondence and unfruitful hope that permeated these characters' lives. It was curious how detached they seemed to be, how resigned and accepting they were as they walked towards their destines. It was only later that I realized that they had no other basis for comparison and that the strange life they led was the only life they had ever known.

The characterization in this book was immaculate as well. Though the characters were meant to be somewhat indistinct, I found that they were all fully formed and that they were easy to identify with because they embodied the characteristics of people I have known throughout my life. That was one of the things that was so haunting about this book: I felt as though I knew these people in some way; one in particular reminded me of a friend I had long ago, so it was all the more disturbing to realize what was in store for them. To see their fate played out was frightening in a way that I tried not to examine too closely. I suppose the closeness I felt to the characters was in itself another of Ishiguro's deft manipulations, and that the book would have lost a lot of its impact if one were not so attuned to the characters' individuality and emotions.

I really loved this book for its intricacy and beautiful construction and think that its an excellent example of literary writing infused with just the right amount of psychological suspense. There is so much to explore within the constructs of this story, and in the end, the discussions that could be had about this book might be almost as complex as the book itself. I would definitely say that this is one of the better books I have read this year and that its subtlety and revelations were created with a master's touch. Reading this book was pleasurable, and in many ways, scary, but I am thankful that I have had the experience. A great read and highly recommended. I would love the chance to explore this book further and hear other's opinions, so if you have read it and would like to discuss it, please let me know!

16 comments:

Meghan said...

So glad you loved it! I adore Ishiguro. There are so many layers to his writing and I really enjoy the fact that like you said, the full impact of the book doesn't hit you until you've nearly finished. Only then do you realize all the careful groundwork he's laid throughout the narrative. I don't think I remember this book well enough to discuss it but I know a lot is there.

Diane said...

I really liked this book a lot as well. I did not expect to, but it was very well written.

A Bookshelf Monstrosity said...

I've not read any Ishiguro yet, but I'm adding this one to my reading list. Thank you for your thoughtful review.

Steph said...

I read this book a few years ago for my bookclub (I actually chose it), but unfortunately, none of us were huge fans!

I am not sure why, but I never thought it was very mysterious what was going on - nothing about the plot really surprised me, and I think that really mitigated a lot of my enjoyment when it came to this book. I also felt that all of the characters were very flat, and the completely lack of emotion made it so that I had a hard time caring about any of them and their plight. Because they were all so resigned to what was going to happen, I didn't really feel invested in having things go differently for them. I guess because the characters were so detached and disengaged, I was too.

I do want to try more Ishiguro in the future, but this one just didn't do it for me!

Suko said...

I haven't read anything by this author, but now I am so tempted! Thanks for a terrific review. I will add this book to my TBR list for sure.

bermudaonion said...

A combination of psychological suspense and literary fiction sounds so good. The cover is just creepy enough to catch my eye too.

StephanieD said...

Fantastic review. You've made me really curious about this book. I've seen it for years, but never wanted to pick it up until now.

Aarti said...

I love Ishiguro. Need to read more of him! I did this one as an audiobook, actually, which I don't do often at all. I enjoyed it in that format. I am glad you liked the story, too :-)

Lenore said...

LOVE this one. One of my favorites, for many of the reasons you mentioned.

writergal said...

I like that you describe that it is written in "lush but subdued prose." very nice. I've heard of this book but don't yet have it on any lists.

Gwendolyn B. said...

What a well-written review! You, too, have brought your readers to the "precipice of understanding." You've expressed how extraordinary this book is without giving anything away. I read it a few years ago and it still haunts me.

lisamm said...

Excellent review, Heather. I thought this was a fantastic book, but it's most memorable because it's the book that nearly killed my book club. We had some major disagreements about it and one woman actually quit over some comments that were made (someone compared the special students in the book to the Jews during Nazi Germany- resigned to their fate, etc. and going along with everything, and this woman said, "But they were created to do this! The Jews had everything taken from them! They were real people with real lives, not like these "students"" which was, of course an excellent point, but she was so riled up and upset that anyone would make that "ignorant" comparison that she quit in a huff). ANYway, I'll have to re-read my own review. It's been over a year.

Mystica said...

I've not read Ishiguro and will need to hunt this book down, Thank you for a very thoughtful, intriguing review

Marie said...

I loved this book. It's so sad and elegaic and tragic and you get such a feeling of these people and their wasted lives and lost potential for love and happiness. It's a really beautiful work! Thanks for your great review.

Nymeth said...

I only skimmed your review because I'm going to read this very soon, but I'll be back to read it in more detail once I have. I could tell that you loved it, though, which is great :D

Elizabeth said...

I clearly remember when I finally "got it" reading this book - I had to set it down and walk away, because I was so shocked. LOVE this novel. Now I want to read it again, to see if it holds up after knowing the big secret.

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