Reading Matter
Books On the Side
Books In Brief

Never Let Me Go

A group re-read (Last Updated 18 October 2006)



Frank Kermode, as I recall, regretted the banality of language in Never Let Me Go

Everything is expertly arranged, as it always is in Ishiguro, but this dear-diary prose surely reduces ones interest.

- "Outrageous Game," London Review of Books, Vol 27 N 8 (21 April 2005)

Mr Kermode's dismissal surprised me, because the cognitive dissonance that the novel sets up between that "dear diary prose" and the horrors that slowly emerge from it unsettled me deeply. The novel must be told, shall we say, by a first person, and that person can't have had the benefit of a posh education. Anything overtly literary in the tone of Kathy H, the narrator of Never Let Me Go, would break the spell forever, would reduce the novel to a bad dream - a fantasy, not a fiction.

Reading the first chapter for a second time, I'm struck by the intelligence and organization that seems native to Kathy, not to the author. The quality that I associate with Kathy is clarity - she is a clear person. She is not tormented by inner demons, as her two best friends are. Her disposition is sunny. She is, as she tells us, a good "carer." We have no idea what that means, the first time through the chapter, but now, on the second pass, I see that Kathy is taking good care of me. In her calm and unruffled way, she will unfold the the awful business in which she is mired and by which she is doomed. Gently, with as few shocks as possible, she'll get me to reflect upon my own mortality.

The chapter is divided into two parts. The second relates an anecdote that could happen at any coeducational boarding school. We're likely to gloss over the mention of "Sales" - English schools are full of mysterious rites. In the anecdote, we meet the principals, Ruth and Tommy, and we get to know them better than we think. Ruth is sarcastic and Tommy is driven. It's the first part of the chapter, however, that I want to look at closely. "Carer" is introduced right away. "Donor" follows quickly. These words don't really raise any flags; Kathy seems to be in the health-services sector, in some special line of work that entitles her to early retirement. But there's a strange note in the second paragraph: Kathy, a "Hailsham student," comes from a "privileged estate." Bearing in mind the English usage of the word "estate," which is almost the exact opposite of its American meaning, we're jarred by the juxtaposition. By the end of this part of the chapter - on the third page of text in my edition - we have also hit on the word "completing" in a context that makes it synonymous with "dying." Kathy sails imperturbably on. You could say that she makes it difficult to dwell on our misgivings. You could also say that she is careful to provide us grounds for further misgivings with the buffered regularity of a timed-release capsule.

And let's not miss the fact, heralded at the start, that the novel is set in the England of the 1990s. Whatever else we're to endure here, a dystopian vision of the future is not to be part of the experience. Mr Ishiguro has created an alternative past. That the action takes place in a past that is not our past, and does not suggest what our foreseeable future will be like, is a pre-emptive cauterization. We're being asked not to get carried away with "What if" questions. The only "what if" question that the serious reader will wind up with is this: "What if Never Let Me Go is in fact about me?" (12 July 2006)


Interesting that you should begin your post with the Kermode quote, because what I was most attentive to while reading Chapter 1 for the second time (which I did before reading your post) is Kathy's voice, something I paid little attention to the first time around, being focused primarily on 'where is this story going?'. Kathy H is intelligent, perceptive and imperturbable, but most horrifying to me (now that I'm re-reading the book and know 'the story') is the note of resignation I detected in her voice, both as to what has gone before and what lies ahead (an issue that I'm sure will be a topic for further discussion as this reading continues). I agree that the narrative tone is completely appropriate to the character of Kathy H and rather than making the novel uninteresting, makes it more interesting (particularly as the story unfolds).

A thought that has nothing to do with the book, per se (so feel free to edit this out when you post my comment): after re-reading Chapter 1 and reading your post, I decided to peruse whatever reviews of the book I could still find on-line (something that I previously avoided after one of the two reviews I did see before reading the book should have been accompanied by a 'spoiler alert'). The very first review I saw (which I re-visited) was Peter Kemp's piece in the on-line edition of the London Times (February 20, 2005), which, without giving away much of the plot, succeeded in persuading me to order the book immediately. Jonathan Yardley's review in the Washington Post (April 17,2005) took the same approach ("Believing as I strongly do that readers must be allowed to discover a book's secrets for themselves, guided by the author's hand, rather than have those secrets gratuitously spilled by a reviewer, I shall err on the side of silence, so please bear with me."). In contrast, several other critics elected to provide a 'book report,' which gave away 'the secret' in a manner that, in my opinion, mischaracterized what the book is really about. Although a discussion of the role of the literary critic is probably not relevant to this thread, it is a subject on which I would like to hear others' views, particularly with respect to books that, like Never Let Me Go, are susceptible to summarization in a potentially misleading fashion. Are there readers, I wonder, who elected to forego Never Let Me Go because it was described by a critic as essentially a science fiction novel? (19 July 2006)


JMK raises a very interesting point (at the end of JMK 1): were the "book report" critics, the ones who "spilled the beans," more or less likely to characterize Never Let Me Go as science fiction?

Because this discussion is essentially a re-reading, there's no need to keep secret about "what happens." And yet, because I want to watch it happen, to see how it happens, I prefer to write about Never Let Me Go as if I didn't know where it's going. I don't know where my own life is going, either - that's not so much a "lesson" of the book as one of the many things about life of which it's a simple but powerful reminder.

That may explain the popularity of the "science fiction" reading of Never Let Me Go. Science fiction has an escapist function; its contrafactuality allows its fans to imagine freedom from at least a few earthbound restraints. But if the cloning of human beings is "science fiction," the restraints are only multiplied. If you focus on the cloning, and on the purpose behind the cloning, the wormwhole that opens up takes you not on a flight to Vega but to a slog through an impenetrable moral morass.

Of course, we haven't reached the cloning yet. We've just had a handful of oddly-accented words ("privileged estate," "completing").

In my next post, I'll advance to the second chapter, with its introductions of "Exchanges" and "Sales," sinister only because they have to be explained - and are not fully explained at all. What are these paupers, with no personal possessions other than the ones for which they barter with their artwork, doing at the "privileged estate" of Hailsham? (September 2006)(Link to blog)


For a lazy (anxious?) reader like myself, one of the joys of re-reading a novel (or at least a novel of a certain type) is discovering some layer of meaning below that of the obvious plot. This is the main reason that I wanted to participate in a re-reading of Never Let Me Go. As I mentioned in my previous post, I was so focused on where 'the story' was going that I didn't appreciate the subtleties (like Kathy H's voice); this time around, I have the freedom (now that I know 'the story') of thinking more about what the author really wanted to convey by telling this particular story in this particular way. And given my previous focus on obvious plot, rather than more subtle  presentation, I, too, am not entirely certain where the story will lead. This is, I think, the true brilliance of Ishiguro's novels; his story lines (well, perhaps, but for The Unconsoled) seem to me to be fairly straight-forward, but there is always something lingering below the surface that a casual reader (like me) doesn't discern from the first go-round.

The 'science fiction' aspect of the novel cuts both ways, something I never really thought about until reading your latest post, RJ. That is, it might have put some readers off the novel if they (like me) are not science fiction fans (although I expect I would have read Never Let Me Go anyway because Ishiguro is one of my favorite authors), but on the other hand it might have attracted other readers more interested in the science fiction aspect of the book rather than what I think Ishiguro was trying to convey; perhaps this should be preceded by a 'spoiler alert,' but as I recall from Ishiguro's podcast with the writer from The Guardian (or was it The Independent?), Ishiguro intended the clones and their fate as a device to move things along, rather than the main point of the novel.

In any event, I look forward to your comments on the next chapter.


Chapter Two of Never Let Me Go describes the character of Tommy in terms of creativity. We don't see this at first, as Kathy describes Tommy's tantrums and the ostracism that they bring upon him. But when Kathy, who has just begun paying close attention to Tommy, remarks one night, in her six-bed dorm room, that the way students treat Tommy isn't "really very fair," Ruth, whose judgment the other girls await "whenever something a bit awkward came up," observes that Tommy's attitude needs changing. What's odd is that she doesn't say anything about his tantrums - they're apparently not the problem. The problem is that Tommy

didn't have a thing for the Spring Exchange. And has he got anything for next month? I bet he hasn't.

The following paragraphs are densely packed with new information. First, Kathy explains the Exchanges. Her everyday vernacular, so deplored by Frank Kermode, proves its vital importance here. We swallow what she says about the Exchanges even though we don't comprehend it at all. It seems to go like this: the students create sculptures, drawings, even poetry, and the guardians (not teachers) decide how many Exchange Tokens each "work of art" is worth. Then, at the Exchanges, the students buy one another's production.

Looking back now, I can see why the Exchanges became so important to us. For a start, they were our only means, aside from the Sales - the Sales were something else, which I'll come to later - of building up a collection of personal possessions. If, say, you wanted to decorate the walls around your bed, or wanted something to carry around in your bag, and place on your desk from room to room, then you could find it at the Exchange. I can see now, too, how the Exchanges had a more subtle effect on us all. If you think about it, being dependent on each other to produce the stuff that might become your private treasures - that's bound to do things to your relationships. The Tommy business was typical. A lot of the time, how you were regarded at Hailsham, how much you were like and respected, had to do with how good you were at 'creating.'

I quote the entire paragraph because Kathy's plausibility - her ability to make sense to us even though we don't really understand what she's talking aboutl - mirrors the plausibility of Hailsham to its students. Life at Hailsham makes sense to them because it is what it is, but they don't really understand it. They don't know what they don't know. So we pass over, for the moment, the oddity of kids enthusiastically buying their classmates' scribbles. Perhaps we imagine that Hailsham is some sort of Montessori institution, where creativity is extraordinarily important. If we do, we're not far wrong. But any inclination to get to the bottom of things is swept away by the very next paragraph.

Ruth and I often found ourselves remembering these things a few years ago, when I was caring for her down at the recovery centre in Dover.

While Ruth and Kathy talk about how strange it was (or wasn't) to have bought poetry, when one might simply have copied it down, our antennae are paradoxically numb and supersensitive at the same time. We're numb to the talk about poetry and the Exchanges, because all we want is more information about the "recovery centre." Presently Kathy interrupts her report of the conversation with Ruth and gratifies this desire. Ruth's recovery centre is "one of my favourites," Kathy tells us. She talks quite a bit about the immaculate tiles on the walls and the floors, and the author allows himself a a lovely image.

When you lift and arm, or when someone sits up in bed, you can feel this pale, shadowy movement all around you in the tiles.

But all the most autistic readers will be thinking not about tiles but about Ruth and her first "donation." It doesn't occur to Kathy to explain any of this, however, because what's on her mind is the brilliance of the tiles and the beauty of the view from Ruth's room. I remember thinking, the first time through, that Kathy was slightly daft here; now, I expect that I was meant to think so. Ishiguro's strategy, especially in the first Part, involves a great many slight irritations that scar our experience of the book, as if he meant to inform us by withholding information. What he's doing, of course, is sensitizing us to the contours of the novel's peculiar realities.

"But let me get back to Tommy," Kathy says after briefly resuming the report of the conversation at the recovery centre. "Tommy and I talked about all this not so long ago, and his own account of how his troubles began confirmed what I was thinking that night." We can't help noting that the setting of this conversation, which took place "not so long ago, goes unstated. (We might not notice that Kathy is not said to be caring for Tommy, but it's an important point as well.) I believe that any attentive reader will find this omission quite ominous, but in any case it suggests an intimacy greater than Kathy's friendship with Ruth, intense as we already know that to be.

We're now roughly halfway through the chapter. In the second half, the importance of creativity to Tommy will become explicit. (30 December 2006) (Link to blog)

Permalink | Portico

Copyright (c) 2006 Pourover Press

Write to me