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Book Review: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

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One of the bad things about being a great writer is that readers will come to expect that writer to reach greatness every time, and so if a work falls just short at very good or merely excellent, this can be a disappointment. This is just what Kazuo Ishiguro’s most recent novel, Never Let Me Go does. Because I have read now all of the works of Ishiguro — who has written great books like The Remains of the Day and An Artist of the Floating World as well as near great books such as A Pale View of Hills and The Unconsoled — I can say that Never Let Me Go let me down a bit but that is only because I expect more from him than I would other writers. As is, this is a good book but it lacks those moments of great insight as that of his earlier works, and sadly (or happily) were this any other writer I would have begun this review off on a more positive note.

Having said that, Never Let Me Go is told from the first person point of view of a young woman named Kathy, and just as with his other works, Never Let Me Go is a very quiet novel in the sense that it works not only as a “dystopian” novel but also as a presentation of a character, where we learn her inner thoughts and quirks – a technique Ishiguro has developed so successfully in his earlier books. In this novel, it is not that he does not succeed in developing a real and authentic character, it is perhaps the character herself who is not as insightful as his leading narrators in the past.

Just to give an example, there are moments in the book where the narrator tells a bit too much – and by “too much” what I am really saying is that there are times when she drifts into banal revelations that in his previous works would have been laced with keener observations. It also could be that Kathy isn’t as interesting a character as those from his other books, and as I mentioned earlier in this review, because it is nearly impossible to forget what he has accomplished in his other works, as a reader I found it difficult to not make those comparisons.

Many have compared Never Let Me Go to Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World because the tale involves the breeding of clones, or as they are known in the novel “students.” The students/clones are not viewed on the same level as that of the “guardians” and so the novel — without being preachy or condescending — presents these ideas regarding class and social distinction in a very subtle way.

Because I do not want to give away too many spoilers, those not reading this tale carefully can easily miss the subtlety Ishiguro uses when presenting these dystopian themes. The book also addresses ideas on authority and rebellion as well as loneliness without delving into excessive sentimentality. And despite the novel’s sci-fi leanings, he laces the narrative with realism, balancing these tropes nicely.

My impression of this book is based only upon one reading, and like all of Ishiguro’s novels, it probably deserves a second reading in order to fully dissect what is going on. Aesthetically I did not find this book as pleasing as his earlier books and so if readers are interested in tackling some of Ishiguro’s books I would recommend The Remains of the Day or An Artist of the Floating World first since I believe those two to be his best works.
And just to give readers a sense of an “Ishiguro moment” the book ends with Kathy getting out of her car and standing off by herself in an empty field. She stands before a fence where there are piles of rubbish and trash buried within the wire and in her mind she “imagined this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up, and I was now standing here in front of it."

Anyone who has read either The Remains of the Day or An Artist of the Floating World knows that in those two books both characters end the tale by sitting alone on a bench, contemplating their own loneliness. And in a similar way, Kathy is doing the same. Yet, this moment does not have the impact of the others, leaning more towards trite than insight. Unfortunately, it feels like Ishiguro is echoing himself.

Never Let Me Go is definitely an unusual novel – one that challenges many ideas on multiple levels. I am glad to now have read all of Ishiguro’s works and have an idea of where I rank each them. I suppose if being a merely good novel is the worst that a writer can do, that his chances of being read a hundred years from now don’t look so bleak after all. Ishiguro is a must read for any lover of literature yet I would wait on this one – read the others first, then you’ll see for yourself what I mean.

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About Jessica Schneider

  • Very well written! I think Ishiguro is a unique writer, who among other things, tinkers with the rhythm with the meter of English language. It is almost as if he’s going against the grain, by overlaying passive voice atop active voice, and It think by doing so he evokes such an usual and gentle friction between mind and heart. I once went to his reading in San Francisco and I asked pushed him to name if he had a favorite writer. Initially he was very reluctant but in the end he name the master Dostoevsky. Who would’ve thought!
    – moazzam sheikh