Kazuo Ishiguro
Never Let Me Go

Kazuo Ishiguro's latest novel is clumsy, awkward and often soporifically dull. So why does it feel this mysteriously good?

By Sophie Elmhirst

Kazuo Ishiguro achieves something remarkable in his new book, Never Let Me Go. On reading it, there is a sense of near-embarrassment. Here is a bastion of the English literary scene writing, well, badly. his sentences are clumsy and awkward, phrases repeat themselves with strange monotony, the tone often verges on soporific dullness. But the book, once put down, is disconcertingly, mysteriously good.

Ishiguro's story of a modern dystopia is told by Kathy H, a narrator so characterless and unreal it is almost impossible to imagine she exists. but that, it emerges, is the point. Kathy guides us through her childhood at Hailsham, a rural boarding school where the pupils never leave, and whose time seems to be exclusively occupied by “doing art” and writing poetry in a desperate bid to get work into “the gallery”. The gallery, and its visiting representative “madame”, remain shrouded in mystery until questions arise that reveal the macabre fate of the children.

It is, in its subject matter, a classic (even predictable) contemporary horror story about genetics. Ishiguro's trick is to strip the narrative of colour and drama until it resembles a limp, lifeless ghost of reality. Scenes, characters and places are related with logic and precision, and while there are occasional moments of genuine emotion, they are suspended in jarring discomfort. It is difficult to distinguish between the characters – whether male or female, young or old, they merge into an artificial uniformity which is echoed in their manufactured names: Reggie D, Carole H, Amanda C, Jenny B. Settings, equally, are drawn with a remote, plastic effect – seaside towns and distant country lanes and fields are the territory of the book. But they never live and breath: it is a landscape that is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Beneath the alienating superficiality of Kathy's narrative, though, Ishiguro has created a world that churns in the reader's consciousness. It is a reality shifted one place to the left – an environment, a set of characters, a chain of events, that seems simultaneously mundane, boring, and profoundly disturbing. The horror is achieved with a subtlety that works almost as a double bluff. The prose at times seems so lacklustre, the scenarios so protracted and insignificant that one is irritated into acceptance, even dismissal of the fundamental, and horrible, truth behind the characters' existence.

What Ishiguro has done here raises an interesting question. Can an author get away with writing a novel that is, it seems, a means to an end? It is hard to enjoy Never Let Me Go from page to page. Its characters, tone and language alienate and aggravate, and yet it achieves a manipulative psychological power. But is that enough? I am tempted to say, no. There is something mechanical about this book – and by that I mean that its power comes from a constructed effect that is ugly in process but brilliant in result. This is all very well, but in the end feels like a raw deal. A book should surely be as good in the reading as it is in the mulling over. Ishiguro's work might provide food for thought, but in itself it is tasteless.
Nick posted 3 January 2011 (18:56:14)
I agree to an extent with your ultimate conclusions but think the 'result' may be worth 'mulling over' a bit more. I think this book is about many things such as youth and lost youth but mostly it's about our own mortality and the angst and anger we feel like Tommy when we stop and reflect on our helplessness and also about the pain many go through as they help loved ones through terminal illness. I found the final pages of this book moved me powerfully and fully made up for the bland episodes I'd had to drag myself through earlier in the novel.
Nick posted 3 January 2011 (18:54:17)
I agree to an extent with your ultimate conclusions but think the 'result' may be worth 'mulling over' a bit more. I think this book is about many things such as youth and lost youth but mostly it's about our own mortality and the angst and anger we feel like Tommy when we stop and reflect on our helplessness and also about the pain many go through as they help loved ones through terminal illness. I found the final pages of this book moved me powerfully and fully made up for the bland episodes I'd had to drag myself through earlier in the novel.
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