10 Rated Books Book Reviews

Book Review: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Title: Never Let Me Go

Author: Kazuo Ishiguro

Genre: Speculative Fiction, Literary Fiction

Publisher: Faber and Faber (UK) / Vintage (US)
Publication Date: March 2005 (UK) / March 2006 (US)
Paperback: 304 pages

Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel.

How did I get this book: Bought.

Why did I read this book: I’ve read Mr. Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and loved it, but since have not returned to his literary pasture. I picked up Never Let Me Go on a whim in the bookstore, craving a meaty, substantive, speculative fiction read, and I hoped that this book would deliver. Plus, I’m shallow in that I saw the cover and the catchy title, and was instantly intrigued.

Summary: (from amazon.com)
From the Booker Prize-winning author of The Remains of the Day comes a devastating new novel of innocence, knowledge, and loss. As children Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules where teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were.

Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life. And for the first time she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them special–and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together.

Review:

Kathy H. is a thirty-year old carer and a graduate from a secluded, elite academy called Hailsham. In an alternate 1990s England, Kathy prepares herself for the next stage of her life as a donor and reminisces about her past as a student and her childhood friends Ruth and Tommy. Written in a deceptively direct and uncomplicated narrative, Mr. Ishiguro writes a haunting, elegiac tale about the meaning and mystery of life. The subject matter of the novel and plot is straightforward, as bluntly simply as Kathy’s narration: three young friends grow up in an idyllic school in the English countryside, where they are encouraged to create works of art while they learn about the world and their place in it. The book is split into three different parts, each representing a stage in Kathy’s life. Part one begins with her time as a student at Hailsham, where she befriends Ruth and Tommy, and part two follows these three friends as they graduate and move to The Cottages to live with other alumni from similar academies across the country. In part three, Kathy has become a carer, and she, Ruth and Tommy cross paths once more. All this reminiscing leads up to an ultimate, haunting fourth act (Kathy’s transition from a carer to a donor), but it is one that we do not read on the page. As Kathy’s memories and the truth about her childhood coalesce into a larger, sharper picture, Never Let Me Go becomes a heartbreaking fictional memoir that asks resounding questions about the nature of humanity, and the depths of the human soul.

The only other book I have read by Mr. Ishiguro is his Booker Prize winning novel The Remains of the Day, in which a butler named Stevens blindly and proudly absorbs himself in his profession, to the extent that he alienates the woman he loves, his father, and is blind even to the tendencies of his Nazi sympathizing employer. In Mr. Ishiguro’s sixth novel, Never Let Me Go, he explores similar territory with his characters that are so consumed by the subtext and minutia of their cliques and daily lives that they never notice the larger picture – but the readers do. And what an ominous picture it is.

Never Let Me Go is a book about characters, but it also treads into the realm of dystopian speculative/science fiction. I won’t spoil exactly HOW this novel falls under the SFF umbrella (even though it becomes suspect from even a few chapters in); suffice to say that it does, and Never Let Me Go does it in the tradition of Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy – but sans any literary pretentiousness. And, like the best works of the dystopian cannon, the strength of the novel lies not just in some catchy premise or flashy plot techniques, but rather in the strength of its characters. This isn’t M. Night Shyamalan, where the impact of the story relies on one huge twist; rather, the beauty of Mr. Ishiguro’s work is in quiet revelation and thought-provoking subtext.

As such, Never Let Me Go is a character driven novel. Built entirely on the first person narrated memories of Kathy, this is a book that is breathtaking in its subtlety. Each of the three friends are gorgeously drawn in Kathy’s memories and Mr. Ishiguro’s direct prose. Ruth, the forceful, outgoing ringleader of the girls at Hailsham becomes Kathy’s best friend, and their relationship is stretched and tested as they grow up. Tommy is an outsider at the academy with his fiery temper and unpredictable tantrums, but he too becomes Kathy’s good friend and confidante, as she reaches out to him. Kathy herself is revealed to be the quiet member of the group, not as strangely angry as Tommy nor a leader like Ruth, but keenly observant. Kathy’s entire narrative is constantly preoccupied with the small subtleties of her friendship with the domineering Ruth, her social standing at Hailsham, and her initial worry for Tommy. At first, it seems that this novel is much ado about nothing, taking place entirely in Kathy’s mind with her myriad perceptions of the nuanced power politics of female cliques. But as Kathy’s narrative progresses and the characters gain more color and the backdrop of Kathy’s world comes into focus, significant, impossible to ignore questions about the nature of the human soul are raised. Are Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy’s interactions “normal”? Why wouldn’t anyone in their situation simply try to run away – or is it simply human nature to accept what limitations and rules you are taught from birth? There are many interpretations possible with this novel, which is part of its beauty. Add to this the sparse, forthright and unconsciously gorgeous writing of Kazuo Ishiguro, and it’s easy to see why this novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Never Let Me Go is easily one of the finest novels I’ve read this year, of any genre. Even better, in my opinion, than The Remains of the Day. This is what reading is all about.

Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:

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. Now I know my being a carer so long isn’t necessarily because they think I’m fantastic at what I do. There are some really good carers who’ve been told to stop after just two or three years. And I can think of one carer at least who went on for all of fourteen years despite being a complete waste of space. So I’m not trying to boast. But then I do know for a fact they’ve been pleased with my work, and by and large, I have too. My donors have always tended to do much better than expected. Their recovery times have been impressive, and hardly any of them have been classified as “agitated,” even before fourth donation. Okay, maybe I am boasting now. But it means a lot to me, being able to do my work well, especially that bit about my donors staying “calm.” I’ve developed a kind of instinct around donors. I know when to hang around and comfort them, when to leave them to themselves; when to listen to everything they have to say, and when just to shrug and tell them to snap out of it.

Anyway, I’m not making any big claims for myself. I know carers, working now, who are just as good and don’t get half the credit. If you’re one of them, I can understand how you might get resentful—about my bedsit, my car, above all, the way I get to pick and choose who I look after. And I’m a Hailsham student—which is enough by itself sometimes to get people’s backs up. Kathy H., they say, she gets to pick and choose, and she always chooses her own kind: people from Hailsham, or one of the other privileged estates. No wonder she has a great record. I’ve heard it said enough, so I’m sure you’ve heard it plenty more, and maybe there’s something in it. But I’m not the first to be allowed to pick and choose, and I doubt if I’ll be the last. And anyway, I’ve done my share of looking after donors brought up in every kind of place. By the time I finish, remember, I’ll have done twelve years of this, and it’s only for the last six they’ve let me choose.

You can read the full excerpt online HERE.

Additional Thoughts: Never Let Me Go is currently being adapted to film. And, since it’s a bigger UK movie, it’s predictably starring Keira Knightly as Ruth *gags* In the protagonist role of Kathy is Carey Mulligan, from Public Enemies, and Tommy is portrayed by Andrew Garfield, from Lions From Lambs. Alex Garland, whose resume includes The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine and the upcoming movie adaptation of Halo, pens the screenplay. And, at the helm as director is Mark Romaneck, whose work mostly comprises music videos and the sole movie One Hour Photo

From L to R: Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightly, and Carey Mulligan

The movie has already begun filming, with a release date of 2010. I’m more than a little iffy about the whole thing. Alex Garland’s screenplays – while good, action-packed fun – lack the subtlety and emotional gravitas that makes Never Let Me Go such a beautiful book, and while One Hour Photo was a decent film, it doesn’t quite convince me of Mark Romaneck’s directorial skills.

I strongly urge everyone to read the book, PLEASE, before seeing the movie.

Verdict: I loved Never Let Me Go. It’s a book that resonates long after you finish it, and makes you remember why you fell in love with reading in the first place. Absolutely recommended.

Rating: 10 – Perfection

Reading Next: On the Edge by Ilona Andrews

22 Comments

  • KT
    October 7, 2009 at 1:42 am

    I think I might have to give this book another chance, as I had it slightly ruined for me at the time I first read it. The tutor that taught us it doesn’t really get much SF, and so her focus was on how revolutionary the twist and its implications are—which to me are kinda familiar SF tropes and also dealt with by one of my favourite authors in another novel—instead of the strong character work and atmosphere. So my point of ‘Guys, if you like this so much, stop dismissing all SF as rubbish because this is blatantly just a (nicely written) SF novel. You should be reading this in the context of those’ got in the way of my enjoyment of the book a little.

    (Especially when I was also hacked off at that Michael Marshal Smith’s ‘Spares’ was probably never going to get its movie made, as The Island had come out. And while Spares has nowhere near the subtlety and atmosphere of Never Let Me Go, it has a lot of other things to it I like.)

    It’s a shame because it’s clearly a great book, it’s very well written. I just wish the combination of hype and genre elitism I was having to put up with at the time hadn’t soured it for me.

  • Rhiannon Hart
    October 7, 2009 at 1:56 am

    Oh god not Knightly! Can’t stand that bloody girl these days. I didn’t realise this one was dystopian so I’ll look for a copy now. I’m a book-before-movie girl all the way.

  • Stephanie
    October 7, 2009 at 1:59 am

    I read this book when it was released a few years ago. I had no idea what it was about, but as you said, a few chapters in and the ideas started coming. It was a fantastic novel and one that has stayed with me all these years!

  • drey
    October 7, 2009 at 4:51 am

    *sigh* I picked this up, but never got around to reading it before it had to go back to the library. I’ll have to pick it up again. Thanks for the review!

    Btw, I’ve got an award for you!

  • coldbluelight
    October 7, 2009 at 5:11 am

    One of my favourite books of all time, nice to see it reviewed on here. I’d have to disagree that Margaret Atwood’s work is pretentious, though.

  • Carolyn Crane (CJ)
    October 7, 2009 at 5:36 am

    Wow!! What a treat to see this reviewed! I love Ishiguro, and Remains of the Day is one of my favorite all time books. In fact, this is prolly the only one of his books I have not read. I ask you, WHY?? maybe I read a terrible review, I wasn’t in the mood and then forgot, who KNOWS! But clearly, I have to get on it. This is better than remains? A perfect 10!!! I’m there.

  • Gerd Duerner
    October 7, 2009 at 5:41 am

    That somehow gives me a “The Handmaid’s Tale” vibe, which I never actually read, I thought the movie to be sufficent. *smirk*

    Alex Garland scripting?
    Haven’t been impressed with his work, apart from “28 days later”, but I’ve been impressed with how much impact “The remains of the day” (again only saw the movie) had on me despite the set-up sounding as boring as it can possibly come.

    I guess I should give Mr. Ishiguro a reading chance.

  • KT
    October 7, 2009 at 6:51 am

    Gerd: There’s a bit of the same vibe, but IMO this book is vaaastly better than the Handmaid’s Tale.

    The film screenplay being by the guy who did 28 Days Later gives me hope for the adaptation, cause while there was action and drama to that, those opening ’empty London’ scenes are so beautifully atmospheric (and they went to such lengths to get them as it’s all on location, filmed in tiny sections) that I think there could be a chance he’ll get NLMG right. (Yeah I know that’s more down to direction than script maybe, but even so.)

  • KMont
    October 7, 2009 at 7:41 am

    Hmmmm, well…I was curious about how this book was speculative fiction. I know you say that would spoil it were you to explain, but that only makes me more curious.

    Does that mean it would spoil the book to say what a “carer” and a “donor” are?

    Still, you gave it the highest grade you could, so I feel it’s worth giving it a shot. When I’ll be able to who know, but that’s what to be read lists are for. 😉

  • Cara Powers
    October 7, 2009 at 8:39 am

    This book is fabulous. I’m so glad the movie is being made. I hope it’s done well. I can’t wait to include it in my books and movies category. Maybe I’ll have to put up a review.

  • Thea
    October 7, 2009 at 10:09 am

    KT – I really do recommend you give Never Let Me Go another shot. I really HATE it when something like that ruins a book or movie for someone, but I completely understand why you were turned off (heck, I probably would have been too, if that were my experience!). I said it in the review, but it bodes repeating – NLMG isn’t really so much about any huge “OMG THAT IS THE TWIST!” sort of revelations. And the SFF angle isn’t particularly original, I completely agree. But the writing, the characters, that’s what sells the book for me. I can understand why some people might not like this book because it is so cerebral and less plot (or plot-device) driven, but it worked for me :mrgreen: And I hope you get a chance to read it again with a new perspective!

    Rhiannon – when I saw this was going to be a movie online looking around for something to post about in “additional thoughts” and that Kiera Knightly was going to OF COURSE be starring in it, I gagged a little. THERE ARE OTHER FABULOUS BRITISH ACTORS, PEOPLE. Kiera Knightly and her stupid mouth makes me so so so angry. It’s not her fault, I know, but it’s so irritating that she’s immediately cast in any big budget movie that needs a young british actress. /rant

    Seriously though, NLMG is a beautiful dystopian/SFF novel, and I have an inkling that you will love it :mrgreen:

    Stephanie – Definitely! It’s one of those books that resonates long after you’ve finished reading it. And it’s definitely one that I can see myself rereading again in the future.

    Drey – I hope you get a chance to read it (again)! I find myself doing that with library books and rental dvds a lot, and then kicking myself later for not making the time! 😆 Oh well.

    And thank you for the award!!!!

    coldbluelight – I actually really loved The Handmaiden’s Tale – it’s just Ms. Atwood’s position as an author (“No, I DO NOT write ‘science fiction,’ this is LITERATURE, not that genre fiction rabble!!”) that strikes me as pretentious. But that doesn’t stop me from enjoying and reading her work though. I cannot wait to get my hands on The Year of the Flood! And I agree with you about the brilliance of NLMG. It’s certainly one of the best books I have read in a long time 🙂

    CJ – If you loved The Remains of the Day, I’m pretty sure you’ll love this book. It’s in the same quiet spirit, I think. Read it! I cannot wait to see what you think!

    Gerd – I’m with you on being less than impressed with Alex Garland’s skills. Of the movies he has done, I think a lot of the success comes not from the script, but from the directors and actors he has been gifted with (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine with freaking Danny Boyle). The actual WRITING? Hmmm. Not so wonderful. Especially in Sunshine. Really, really cheesy at parts, though I love the movie for its visuals and actors. Again, that’s the director though.

    As for giving Mr. Ishiguro a reading chance, I can only say – DO IT 😈 You just might like it!

    KT – Ahh, I do agree with you about the visuals of the films. But…that’s the director, photography director, set director, etc. As NLMG is being directed by a music video guy….I dunno. I’m nervous, to be honest. I’m sure it will be a decent movie, but this is one of those books that really seems impossible to capture on film. And Alex Garland and Mark Romaneck aren’t exactly subtle. I don’t know. We shall see!

    KMont – I refuse to spoil it for you! But I do think that even if you know what the SFF element is, it doesn’t really matter. The story is beautiful for the story. :mrgreen:

    Cara – I’m nervous but will definitely see the movie when it comes out! And I do hope it’s a good one. I’d love to see what you think when it comes out! 🙂

  • Heather @ Book Addiction
    October 7, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    I LOVED this book. I’m so glad you did too! You did such a good job of giving a complete review of the book without spoiling the most major aspects of the novel, even though like you said, the “big picture” is alluded to from very early on in the novel. I haven’t yet read anything else from Ishiguro but I definitely plan to.

  • Hannah
    October 8, 2009 at 5:47 pm

    Looking forward to reading it and watching the movie as well. Mainly because Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield are both fantastic in everything I’ve seen them in. Keira Knightley? Meh.

  • Peta
    October 8, 2009 at 11:47 pm

    This is a great review of an incredible book. I loved it when I read it last year and am very, very worried about the film adaption….

  • John H.
    October 14, 2009 at 3:31 am

    I have just finished reading Never let me go again after 4 years. My original thoughts have not changed; it is certainly dystopian but in the sense of complete acceptance of the horrific. Only Tommy shows any anger at the evils inflicted on him. It may be set in the late 1990s but this book was written in the early noughties and, for me, is about hoplessness. Just as 1984 was about Britain in 1948 so this is about the horrors of living in a Britain in 2004/5 where there is apparently nothing one can do to stop the juggernaut of the loss of liberty all Britains are suffering. For me, Ishiguro has written obliquely about one-a-year laws removing our rights and police mis-use of those laws so that 13-years-olds can be searched in the name of anti-terrorism and a woman can be arrested and convicted for reading out a list of the names of British soldiers killed in war. Kathy H. just goes to her terrible future without any thought to challenge the system organised for her destruction and the rest of the population just don’t want to know. 😐

  • Lovely Person
    November 16, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    This book is amazing.
    Spoilers
    They are clones
    Donors: vital organs
    Carers: Look after the donors till they die, then eventually become donors themself
    Fourth donation: Heart because it kills them automatically

  • KMont
    June 21, 2010 at 5:56 am

    Just finished this one yesterday – finally. 🙂 Glad I read it. I had to school my fiction-loving mind that this wasn’t meant to be a dystopian where the world itself was of any real import in the sense of describing society at the time, etc., but rather as you say about the characters and how the world shaped them. I’ve never read anything like this. A good experience overall.

  • REVIEW: Never Let Me Go | Lurv a la Mode
    July 22, 2010 at 7:47 am

    […] Never Let Me Go. First of all, I have to give huge thanks to Thea over at The Book Smugglers, who reviewed this one back in October 2009. Girl, I knew I’d get there eventually! But the book is very different […]

  • Alice
    December 18, 2010 at 4:07 am

    Omg!! What does everyone has against Keira?? She’s an aaamazing actress! And I wouldn’t be reading this book now if it wasn’t for her!!

  • Never Let Me Go | One More Page
    January 24, 2011 at 2:52 am

    […] reviews: The Book Smugglers The Perpetual […]

  • Katie
    February 16, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    I just finished this book, and it was great. I then watched the movie, which I honestly felt was even more haunting (even with Keira Knightly). I highly recommend both.

  • Matthew (@thebibliofreak)
    July 4, 2011 at 8:13 am

    I’m really glad you enjoyed the novel, and thanks for a thorough review. I have to say, I completely love this novel, read my thoughts here: http://bit.ly/jMaDcG

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