‘Never Let Me Go’ is an imaginative story with an excellent title; the kind of title that is simply crying out for didactic reviews: ‘this is a novel which will haunt you – you’ll never be able to let it go!’ or ‘The book asked me to “Never Let Me Go”… I wish I could have’. In truth, the novel is closer to the former statement, though probably without the exclamation mark. Reminiscent of the wonderful ‘The Remains of The Day’ it deals with memory, love, loneliness and the multiplicity of interpretation, but with an unexpected Science Fiction twist.
The story is narrated in the first person by an adult reflecting on her current life and remembering her past. Much like Stevens in ‘The Remains’, she positions herself as an outsider and observer, always attempting to focus on others and inevitably becoming the centre of her own story. Kathy is lonely at the start of the book, obsessively recalling her two closest friends and the childhood they shared. One friend is female (Ruth) and one male (Tommy), allowing the novel to explore ‘letting go’ in both friendship and in romance.
Ruth, Tommy and the protagonist were bought up in an isolated, and secretive, boarding school. Their childhood experiences are beautifully evoked, sometimes focusing on the pitilessly bullied Tommy, sometimes on the charismatic but troubled Ruth. As they grow up the friendship changes, old issues are resolved and new complexities emerge. The romance is dealt with subtly and sensitively, Ishiguro demonstrating his ability to balance the evocative with the explicit. The relationship between Kathy and Ruth is also very well drawn; at its best it reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s ‘Cat’s Eye’, an outstanding representation of bullying and friendship between young girls.
Personally I found the science fiction element less successful. The hideous truth of the world outside of the school, and the fate that will await the characters, is as imaginative and shocking as anything I’ve read. It lurks at the edges of the story, seeping into the narrative in baffling clues, made even more mysterious through the ignorance of the narrator. Despite this, however, I felt the story was continually pulling away to spend more time with the characters and their non-sci-fi relationships. ‘Never Let Me Go’ can certainly be read as a dystopian tale; I feel it is more powerful as a coming of age story. Ultimately the novel is a troubling whole, neither element able to let go of the other but simultaneously unable to assimilate it. Still, if you like your fiction complex, ambitious and disturbing, pick up this book and you may well find yourself obeying the title…