This 2005 novel is built around a highly original idea. But the author leads us to that idea too slowly to suit me. So slowly, in fact, that I was unsure if I wanted to continue reading beyond the first 50 or so pages.
But I did. I had hesitated because the work begins with an adult, Kathy H, addressing the reader about her days at a special school, Hailsham, where nothing dramatic happens, simply ordinary school chatter and childish intrigue; where her fellow classmates have hidden characteristics and her teachers have hidden purposes, depriving each of any intriguing depth; and where a certain mystery about the children’s future hangs in the air. The students are called special, but they are not sure initially why they are at this school, why they are special, or what their destiny may be.
And that uncertainty hangs over them for most of the novel, especially what will become of them when they leave the school. All this begins with, as James Woods says, “the squabbles and jockeying and jealousies of ordinary schoolchildren.” Indeed, Woods acknowledges that “Kathy’s pale narration represents a calculated risk on Ishiguro’s part.” Gradually, matters become clearer, however, as these students graduate to the Cottages. And, oh, so slowly, we learn that they will become carers and donors, although even then it is not yet clear what those two categories mean. Overall, this is a narrative characterized by understatement, an approach that removes its inherent drama, reminding this reader of the understatement between the butler and housekeeper in the movie, The Remains of the Day.
Moreover, this understatement is supplemented by a back-and-forth narrative technique in which Kathy presents a statement or the outcome of a scene and then tells the reader she has to go back in order that he understand the significance of that statement or that scene. After a while, this approach grows too calculated, and too repetitive, for its intended purpose, which is to create periodic moments of drama. It is also, of course, a byproduct of Kathy’s uncertainty a propos her friends’ motives and her own future.
The novel is built around Kathy’s relationship with two friends, Ruth and Tommy. The two girls clearly like Tommy when they meet at their school, Hailsham, and the reader suspects an emotional triangle will soon develop. And it does, but not as the reader anticipates. For one girl wins, and then sacrifices, and then the other girl wins, and sacrifices. Which is intended to be moving. But the understated, undramatic approach to their sacrifices did stand in the way of any emotional response from this reader.
Also contributing to the lack of drama is that Kathy is such an understanding person. She refuses to get mad at anyone, always seeking to understand why other people, particularly Ruth and Tommy, act in the way they do. Thus, at the heart of the novel, there is a lack of dramatic tension within their three-sided relationship.
It is unclear at the start, as I said, and deliberately so, what being a donor means and what being a carer means. But even as it becomes more clear, what is not clear is how one moves from being a carer to a donor, only that some remain longer as carers before they become donors. And yet, this progression, which plays a significant role in the novel, remains unexplained.
Woods takes a different approach than I do to this work. He writes: “Never Let Me Go is a fantasy so mundanely told, so excruciatingly ordinary in transit, its fantastic elements so smothered in the loam of the banal and so deliberately grounded, that the effect is not just of fantasy made credible or lifelike, but of the real invading fantasy, bursting into its eccentricity and claiming it as normal.” He calls this novel an allegory. And so, he says, the programmed futility of these children’s lives is a metaphor for the programmed futility of our natural life in today’s world. He says Ishiguro uses the tools of fantasy to create this allegory. And that “the very dullness of these children, their lack of rebelliousness, even incuriousness, is what grounds the book’s fantasy.” Thus, the weakness that I see is, for him, the novel’s strength.
Which, of course, I do not accept, not in literary terms. It may work to convey an allegorical message, but my criteria in judging a novel calls for me getting inside the characters, in being able to understand or relate to them. Whereas Ishiguro allows me inside their questioning but not inside their hopes or dreams of the future. Because they do not have a future. Their lives are circumscribed, whether by the novel’s reality or by his allegory. Of course, Woods might argue that Ishiguro’s “real interest is not in what we discover but in what his characters discover, and how it will affect them. He wants us to inhabit their ignorance, not ours.”
On a more realistic level, Joseph O’Neill writes in The Atlantic that
the children’s “hesitant progression into knowledge of their plight is an extreme and heart-breaking version of the exodus of all children from the innocence in which the benevolent but fraudulent adult world conspires to place them.” Extreme, yes, I would agree, but heart-breaking, no.
The title refers to a song that Kathy likes and sings aloud. She innocently interprets these words in a love song to be about a woman, like her, who cannot have a baby and then has one, and never wants to let it go. Whereas a school matron sees her and weeps, thinking, we later learn, that the scene is symbolic of the innocent world this schoolgirl is clinging to as opposed to the inevitable scientific world that is coming. It is also representative of the multi-level meanings in this volume of two separate worlds, and in which one world unknowingly serves the other.
Although Ishiguro has received critical acclaim for this and other works, and is highly respected in his adoptive Britain, this novel alone would not prompt me to read more of his work. Nevertheless, I will, because of that reputation and because I did very much enjoy Orphans. Besides, you cannot evaluate a novelist, or his appeal to you, based on one novel. And, certainly, the ambition of this novel, as well as of Orphans, promises additional rewarding worlds to come from Ishiguro’s pen. (April, 2016)