peteg's blog

Kazuo Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go

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Finding myself unexpectedly idle last Sunday, I asked John Miller which of Ishiguro's novels I should be reading; of the thin but apparently not dire collection held by the UNSW Library, this topped his list. I could find nothing by Murakami.

My only previous experience of Ishiguro was in watching the movie of The Remains of the Day, which is something of a slow burn and fade away. John did warn me that was what he does, though he gave me hope that there'd be more burn and less fade in the written form of his works. After reading this I am confirmed in my expectation that that work would be superior in book form, and I am not at all tempted to see the movie version of Never Let Me Go.

This novel smells something like Orwell's 1984, though the ambient sci-fi dystopia is never more than a skeleton on which to hang the pointier parts of the coming-of-age story. I didn't really get into the first half or so, where the narrator and her friends grow up in some kind of English public school, perhaps because I am averse to cliques. I did enjoy the second, which cashes in the first half with tales of there being a time for everything, and the limits of how much one can make good on what has been done before. It was a relief to read something with a decent narrative arc after too many Patrick White character studies.

That the sense of the ending is so well telegraphed makes me think that Ishiguro overvalues revelation; the shifting connections between people, the charades they play and their dimishing scope of agency dominate, as they should, and I would have been just as happy if he had spelt the central conceit out from the get go, for then I wouldn't be questioning the plausibility of it at the climax where it is really the least of anyone's concerns. (Would society really countenance much of this, especially in the post WWII era that the book transiently appeals to? For the author's purposes it doesn't really matter, but it detracts from other things that do. Ishiguro gestures at justification by asserting that a society with a cure for cancer wouldn't entertain not using it.)

I liked that there were no parents, just the creepy guardians with their ambiguous agenda. (This rules out a whole strand of a typical coming-of-age saga, which is perhaps the central payoff of Ishiguro's dystopia.) Moreover there is no exploration of the contemporary culture: no-one listening to chameleonic Britpop or abetting a cross-Atlantic invasion. I had to wonder if the archetype for Tommy D. was in fact Tommy from Trainspotting: he's a bit of a lettuce.