Kazou Ishiguro was born in Japan but moved with his family to England when he was just five years old, as a result most of his novels and short stories are set in England and usually in the past. This allows him to reflect on his adopted homeland from the perspective of a outsider who is also an insider; his parents never expected to stay so long in England so he grew up in a Japanese speaking household even whilst attending English schools and colleges. The Remains of the Day which takes place in a English country house in the 1940’s is probably his best known work and this book is set in the 1980’s and 1990’s so initially it felt like familiar territory. Before starting to read Never Let Me Go I knew nothing about it and made a point (as I usually do) of not reading the introduction to this Folio Society edition so I was coming to the novel with no preconceptions.
The stark illustrations by Kate Miller set the tone of the book straight away. I now know that this is Tommy and Kathy outside the sports pavilion at Hailsham school in a scene from the first chapter, later on we would be introduced to the other main character, Ruth. The novel is in three parts; the first, and longest section, is set at the school and initially it reads like any novel at a boarding school or it least it would do if it wasn’t for the haunting opening lines of the novel that hint at something that really isn’t right but clearly central to the work.
My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years. That sounds long enough, I know, but actually they want me to go on for another eight months, until the end of this year. That’ll make it almost exactly twelve years.
The second section is set at ‘the Cottages’ an old farm where a group of the students get sent after leaving Hailsham and then the final section deals with Kathy’s time as a carer. The book is written in the first person as Kathy and we follow her reminiscences through her school-days and afterwards, all the way up until we get back to this opening line. But just what is the role of a carer? Well it will take half the novel before that truly becomes clear and it turns out that I accidentally bought three dystopian novels as part of a block purchase from the Folio Society when I though I only had two. (The Drowned World by J G Ballard, covered last month and The Last Man by Mary Shelley which will be the subject of a later blog).
I’m so glad that I hadn’t read the introduction to this edition before reading the book as it completely gives the plot away and even discusses the highly significant scene near the end of the novel. This unfortunately is a major failing of the Folio Society, their books are lovely but the introductions should really be postscripts. This review won’t go into too much detail about the plot simply because I want any reader to come at the novel fresh as I did and discover slowly through the hints that get more specific as the book progresses just exactly what is going on and if you haven’t read the book I really do recommend it and you don’t need to get the Folio edition, it is readily available in paperback.
The school sounds like a typical English Public School (that is private for the rest of the world), although gradually you realise that year eight are actually only eight years old, so is it some sort of orphanage? Ishiguro’s master stroke in the novel is just how slowly he lets the reader into the reality of the situation, even the students don’t know what the place is really about but there are dark hints. A bit later on it becomes clear that they cannot leave the site and have virtually no contact with the outside world other than the mysterious Madame who visits occasionally and takes away their best artworks; all very odd.
The picture above is from a scene at the Cottages, Tommy and Ruth are now a couple, with Kathy feeling like an outsider and it is by now obvious most of what is going on although why is still a significant question and this wouldn’t be fully answered until the penultimate chapter. My theory at this point was largely correct but I had anticipated the final twist as to why they are there however without doing exactly what I criticised Claire Messud for in her introduction and giving away too much this is about as far through the plot that I can go.
Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel prize for literature in 2017 with a citation “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” and this book certainly fits that description.