The problem with writing about Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is that I can’t discuss the plot. A blend of science fiction and literary narrative, the novel hinges on a secret, a secret so all-encompassing and imposing, so carefully revealed, that if I were to divulge it, I would ruin the book.
That being said, here’s what I can tell you…
The book follows Kathy and her two best friends, Ruth and Tommy, as they make their way from an isolated and idyllic boarding school, Hailsham, to young adulthood to…well, I’ll stop. The world they live in (set in England, late 1990s) always appears a bit off, slightly skewered, both to the reader and to the characters. Told from Kathy’s naïve, matter-of-fact and hopeful voice, the book focuses on Kathy’s gradual understanding of–and reaction to–her circumstances.
Okay. That’s all I can say without giving too much away.
But, here’s why I loved it.
For years, I was one leg of a three-person group. We had gone to neighboring high schools, then to neighboring colleges; we shared overlapping interests, ideas and dreams. We all deemed the others as “home.” When I read Never Let Me Go, however, there had been a fall out–for reasons too varied and off-topic to explain. The important thing to know is that when I opened this book, our group’s disintegration still stung, still confused me, still kept me up at night looking for the specific moment that things had gone wrong.
Kathy, Ruth and Tommy form a tight, three-person group as well. (I hesitate to call it a “triangle” because I think that gives the wrong impression, although love is at stake in their relationships.) Unlike the type of “triangles” often depicted in pop culture, these three characters have no life-shattering-screaming-swearing-emotional blow-ups, no grand gestures, no scenes of tearing each others’ clothes off. Instead, they go through the real ways these insular groups play out over time: the way you favor one person and hurt the other, the way you isolate each other, the way secrets go around and are leveraged, the way small betrayals add up and weigh on you.
For reasons I can’t explain without giving away plot points, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy only have one another to lean on. And in this bubble of friendship, their constant attempts to be friends, to be lovers, to be “home,” are often thwarted by their fear, their pain and their stifling reliance on one another. In many ways, their friendship is necessary but unhealthy–at different stages for different characters. And as I read their story, I realized how much I understood that, how familiar it all felt. It was as if doors in my brain were being swung open, revealing to me all the complicated history that had worked against my own group. It dragged to the surface memories I had forgotten, hurtful moments that I had unknowingly been complicit in–and others I had knowingly been complicit in.
I’d like to say that this insight made me call together a group meeting to fix things, to mend all the unsaid pain that had collected over time. But like Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, I don’t really know how to communicate such important things, especially to those closest to me. And so, I kept these glimpses of understanding to myself, squirreling them away in my mind for my own comfort alone.
That’s my personal reaction to Never Let Me Go–and, I can understand if that doesn’t convince you to pick it up. But this book is so good–I mean, so, so good–that I feel I must explain why everyone should read it.
Even while steeped in circumstances fantastic and unreal, Never Let Me Go examines the most human of questions, the ones that are the most basic, the most necessary and the most difficult to answer. How do we keep going even though we know how this all will end? What is the line between our delusions, our hopes, our memories and the lies we tell? How do we help one another in sickness and, perhaps more troublingly, in health? And, maybe the most important question of all, what has determined the way we live, the way we shape our days? Yet, for as big as these questions are, Ishiguro avoids any sense of preaching, obviousness or aggrandizement. Instead, he allows these questions to sift to the surface slowly, almost imperceptibly, leaving the reader in a state of shattered realization when the book is put down.
Oh, and, did I mention the book contains a big secret?