Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

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)

When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro

I have long been curious about this author, and I am glad to have finally read him. Ishiguro was brought to England when he was five, and is clearly English now, and is contributing to serious British literature.

This 2000 novel is the story of Christopher Banks, who spends his youth with his parents in Shanghai around 1910, playing with a Japanese boy, Akira, until his parents mysteriously disappear, and then is sent to London to be raised by an aunt. Which suggests a parallel, in its way, to the author’s own change in his upbringing.

The novel begins with Banks in London, now a famous detective and moving about English society. An encounter with an intriguing woman, Sarah Hemmings, revives in him memories of his youth, and even as this portrait of London society becomes fully alive, we gradually realize that the novel is really to be about his attempts to discover what happened to his parents, and the effect on him of that effort. Perhaps it is even why this hero has chosen as his profession that of being a detective. (Or is that merely a convenience for the author?)

The heart of the novel concerns his return to Shanghai in 1937 when it is under siege by the Japanese. This is the most dramatic section of this novel, and its most effective. For Banks is misdirected by the British in his search, encounters again the intriguing Sarah Hemmings, follows up a clue about his parents that exposes him to the block-to-block fighting in Shanghai, believes he meets his boyhood pal Akira, now a Japanese soldier, is captured by the Japanese and returned to the British, and finally learns the fate of his parents.

He learns their fate from his Uncle Philip, who is not a fully fleshed character, but is a necessary one to the story. For Philip was involved in the disappearance of Banks’ mother, and he is now the one who explains the parent’s fate; and, much as the detective in a detective novel, takes many pages at the end to explain the motives and the guilt of the villain. Of course, while Philip confesses, he himself is only a half villain, which gives his character dimension but not sufficient depth. Even when he hands a pistol to Banks.

What Banks learns is not at all what he expected. Nor does the reader. In its way, it is an ironic ending, an intellectually convincing one, but it is not an emotionally convincing one, at least for me. Perhaps because it is an ending over which Banks has no control, and an ending which appears to have no repercussions on his subsequent life that is revealed in the final chapter. In this last chapter, Banks encounters a welcome truth about his family life, and yet it is a truth that should have been clear after the dramatic revelations in 1937. As Banks eases off into the sunset of life on the final pages, in fact, we sense that we understand more of his life than he does. Which, of course, is an ideal objective of many a novelist.

Despite any criticism I offer, I did enjoy this novel. Very much. Particularly the dramatic reality when Banks on his own ventures into the battle-scarred ruins of Shanghai, where danger and gunfire lurk behind every wall. And even when the outcome of this venture behind enemy lines is followed by a final revelation that let me down somewhat, I had to admire the professionalism of the author. And surely he would claim that this is what life is often like. That a life filled with drama is not always one that has a dramatic ending. That, instead, we often accommodate ourselves to the reality that overwhelms us.

One reason I enjoyed this novel so much is that it is a memory novel. Banks is recalling these events of his past, and is able to interpret them, to give them perspective, as he remembers them. His adventures are an attempt by him to resurrect the youthful experiences with his parents that he once so enjoyed. And yet we the reader also understand at times more than he does; we understand how his determination to find his parents is clouding the reality around him, whether it is his potential relationship with Sarah or the risks he faces, both at the battlefront and from the fellow Englishmen who are concealing their involvement in the opium trade of the past.

Another reason for enjoying this novel is that it has the structure of a detective novel. It is about this detective encountering obfuscation as he attempts to solve a mystery of his past, the disappearance of his parents. But it is more than a detective novel, of course. Because Banks’ character both is revealed by and determines the nature of that search. Thus, it is not the solution that matters here, as in a detective novel; it is the search itself.

The orphans of the title suggests the helplessness of Banks in confronting his own history. That he is left on his own, and becomes immersed in a culture he does not quite understand. This appears to be characteristic of other novels by Ishiguro as well. One speculates, in fact, how much his own history has influenced that perspective—of being born a Japanese boy and then fully integrated into the life of an Englishman.

So more novels by Ishiguro are a must. He is my kind of writer. He begins with character, creates an interesting life for that character, presents the character’s life with a perspective that enriches our understanding, describes this character and his life in a straightforward style, and yet conveys a reality that is below the surface, that is often between the lines. Perhaps that last is the tincture of Japanese that colors his British sensibility. (May, 2014)