Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro
A review by Joseph O'Neill
Whatever surnominal adjective Kazuo Ishiguro finally bequeaths us (Ishiguronian?
Ishiguronic?), its meaning is surely settled: suggestive of an emotionally hampered,
stuffily self-expressive individual a Japanese from the imperial days, say,
or a butler, or a buttoned-up British private detective who unreliably surveys
his or her personal past to tragic effect. Peeping through the lowered venetians
of yesteryear (recollection as a species of voyeurism is very Ishiguro), the retrovert
is privy to a series of partial visions that eventually reveal a life guided by
calamitous misapprehension on his part. True, Ishiguro's fourth novel, The
Unconsoled, gleefully dynamited this formula; but his fifth, When
We Were Orphans, saw a return to familiar methods and preoccupations in
particular the perilous importance of nostalgia, and the loss of childhood's blissful
expectancy and ignorance. As Schopenhauer put it, "In our early youth we sit before
the life that lies ahead of us like children sitting before the curtain in a theatre,
in happy and tense anticipation of whatever is going to appear. Luckily we do
not know what really will appear."
This treacherous species of good fortune is horrifically central to Never
Let Me Go, Ishiguro's sixth novel. Our narrator Kathy H., a woman in
her thirties reviews the idyll that was her time at Hailsham, a boarding
school for boys and girls in the English countryside. Her curiously juvenile
prattle "The way it began, it was a bit like a repeat of earlier," she begins
one anecdote and her worshipful obsession with all things Hailshamite quickly
make it clear that Kathy, if not demented, is at least imperfectly removed from
her schoolgirl self; and as she rabbits on, the oddness of her schooldays becomes
increasingly apparent. Why are the teachers called "guardians"? Who is the mysterious
"Madame" who appears from time to time to collect samples of the students' creative
work? Why are there no parents to be seen? And what are we to make of Kathy's
mysterious grown-up occupation as a "carer" for ailing "donors"? Something creepy
is clearly afoot.
It transpires well, here I must collude with the artist to keep his work's
monstrous secret. Suffice it to say that Ishiguro serves up the saddest, most
persuasive science fiction you'll read. Set in "England, late 1990s," the novel
posits a technological breakthrough whose effect is to condemn the children
of Hailsham to a fate that was, until this novel, unthinkable. Ishiguro's imagining
of the children's misshapen little world is profoundly thoughtful, and their
hesitant progression into knowledge of their plight is an extreme and heartbreaking
version of the exodus of all children from the innocence in which the benevolent
but fraudulent adult world conspires to place them. We grow up if we're lucky
in security and wonder, and afterward are delivered to the grotesque fact
of our end. And then? Ishiguro's dark answer is that the modern desperation
regarding death, combined with technological advances and the natural human
capacity for self-serving fictions and evasions (look no further than our see-no-evil
consumption of animals), could easily give rise to new varieties of socially
approved atrocities; one of the many Nietzschean insights of the novel is that
successful crimes produce mutations in morality. With its fantastic, inky bleakness,
Never Let Me Go itself mutates the meaning of "Ishiguroish," or "Ishiguroesque,"
or whatever epithet sticks to this wonderful writer.
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