Thursday, June 28, 2012

Book Review: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go (2005), Kazuo Ishiguro. Paperback, 304 pages.

Awards: Short list for Booker Prize, The Alex Award.

Summary: Students at a special boarding school gradually discover what sets them apart from the rest of humanity. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentences: 
My name is Kathy H. I'm thirty-one years old, and I've been a carer for over eleven years. that sounds long enough, I know, but actually they want me to go on for another eight months, until the end of this year.
     Maybe the volume had been turned up by whoever had been using it last, I don't know. But it was much louder than I usually had it and that was probably why I didn't hear her before I did. Or maybe I'd just got complacent by then. Anyway, what I was doing was swaying about slowly in time to the song, holding an imaginary baby to my breast. In fact, to make it all the more embarrassing, it was one of those times I'd grabbed a pillow to stand in for the baby, and I was doing this slow dance, my eyes closed, singing along softly each time those lines came around again:

     "Oh baby, baby, never let me go . . ."

     The song was almost over when something made me realise I wasn't alone, and I opened my eyes to find myself staring at Madame framed in the doorway.

     I froze in shock. Then within a second or two, I began to feel a new kind of alarm, because I could see there was something strange about the situation. The door was almost half open -- it was a sort of rule we couldn't close dorm doors completely except for when we were sleeping -- but Madame hadn't nearly come up to the threshold. She was out in the corridor, standing very still, her head angled to one side to give her a view of what I was doing inside. And the odd thing was she was crying. It might even have been one of her sobs that had come through the song to jerk me out of my dream.


Writing Quality: 7/10

Depth of Concept: 9/10

Rounded Characters: 8/10

Well-Developed World: 7/10

Page Turner: 7/10

Kept Me Thinking: 9/10

Overall Recommendation: 9/10


Writing Quality: 7/10. There are very few "beautiful phrases" in this novel. I don't think there's a single line that I made special note of. But while that's one of the primary benchmarks by which I judge "writing quality," there's something about this languid, elegantly paced, subtly plotted novel that rises above so many other novels. Perhaps it deserves to be scored even higher for those same reasons; I can acknowledge that I might put too high a premium on "beautiful phrasing," because while this novel didn't have much in the way of show-off phrasing, you can still sense a craftsman behind the project. Ishiguro uses the informal syntax of his protagonist, rather than some sort of omniscient narrator, and it just fits. I've not read other of Ishiguro's novels yet, not even his Booker Prize winner The Remains of the Day, so I can't be sure just what scope his writing ability covers. But I'd guess that he has the ability to use whatever style fits the story he wants to tell, much like Cormac McCarthy. And, unlike The Hunger Games, which really suffered from Collins' clumsy use of the first person perspective, I can't imagine Never Let Me Go working as well from any other perspective. A score of 7 in this category puts it in line with my review of Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars, and T. H. White's The Once and Future King, although they all have very different styles.

Depth of Concept: 9/10. This is a coming-of-age novel with all of the depth and nuance of Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (perhaps more, in fact), but it comes from a less rebellious part of the psyche, from the ambivalent existential part that writers like Sartre and Camus and Samuel Beckett explored so richly. And then throw in a little of Frankenstein. It is a heartbreaking work that should challenge both young people and adults to come to terms with its different themes of love, sacrifice, attachment, and abandonment. I've read some skeptical reviewers question why Ishiguro would sink to exploring such a "pop genre" as the sci-fi thriller, but I think such a perspective is really missing the mark. Yes, this novel offers a thoughtful and understated futuristic portrayal of technology gone horrible, but it's about much more than that. Ishiguro met his wife, a social worker, at a homelessness charity in 1986 in Notting Hill, where he was working as a residential resettlement worker. Anyone from a broken family or who is familiar with the anxieties of identity and belonging so salient in foster care systems should recognize a moving parable of what it means to grow up without roots, without involved parents, or without love. I think this is material that should resonate with a lot of people.

Rounded Characters: 8/10. This is one of those great novels that lets you organically come to know characters over the course of the novel, rather than bluntly and simplistically trying to explain to you exactly who someone is the first time you meet them, and then assuming the task is done. Really, the drawn-out process of understanding each character's motivations, hopes, and anxieties is what drives the novel. The protagonist is likeable, but flawed, and it's a pleasure to try to understand the ways in which the narrator is reliable or not. For the most part, she is. It's possible I scored this a little low . . . but I'm going with my gut. An 8 is really high, the same that I scored McCarthy's The Road and T. H. White's The Once and Future King, and only a little behind Moby-Dick.

Well-Developed World: 7/10. I'm unsure whether I scored this high enough as well. A 7 is quite good, but I scored The Road a 9 in the same category. The main reason I score this a little lower is that I didn't always feel like I was inhabiting the world of the characters, while I did feel that way with The Road. This novel had a more ethereal, otherworldly quality to the environment, which is not necessarily a criticism, I suppose. If I were to use movies as an analogy, I'd suggest that Never Let me Go is a little like the fairy-tale styling of Gattaca or The Illusionist, even Blade Runner (which I love), while The Road is a little more visceral, something along the lines of Alien or perhaps 28 Days Later (which I also love). Of course, both books have well-received movie adaptations that I've not seen.

Page Turner: 7/10. This is not a plot-driven book, even though I saw one dumb reviewer's article denigrate it as a "sci-fi thriller." There's nothing "thrilling" about it, to be honest. There are no action scenes, only the carefully pieced-together recollections of a woman abandoned by society. It's a book where at any point you can stop reading, hold the book to your chest, and just hurt a little for the characters whose lives you're beginning to understand. This is a book where little discoveries about a person's character are the entire reason for turning the next page, and the next, and the next. Sure, there's an element of sci-fi world-building stuff for people who love that, but it's done very sparsely and yet with great care, much as McCarthy did in The Road. I never felt like I had to stay up late finishing the next chapter . . . but I was always drawn back to the book because of the little discoveries I was rewarded with each time I read.

Kept Me Thinking: 9/10. Yes. I've been thinking a lot about this book, almost to the extent of The Road or Moby-Dick (obviously for different reasons). What is especially impressive about this is that Ishiguro never has to rely on gross-out scenes or viscerally difficult scenarios to make his world both disturbing and shocking and heart-breaking. Especially as I was getting to the end of the novel, I found the varied iterations of the theme described in the title of not wanting to let go, and not wanting others to let go of you, to be especially moving and thought-provoking. 

Overall Recommendation: 9/10. The more I think about it, the more I love this novel. When I first started it, I was like, "Really? People get all excited about this kind of writing?" It took me a while to start uncovering the layers that are definitely there. Even halfway through the thing, I was a little on the fence about whether I liked the book or not. Three fourths of the way through, though, I started making connections between all the layers of meaning, and by the end I was really hooked, both emotionally and intellectually. That's the best trajectory for a book, right? To just get better and better until it hits a single, beautiful, sustained chord at the end? If you loved Lois Lowry's The Giver, or Roger Corman's I Am The Cheese, Never Let Me Go is the natural adult evolution. I'd pair Never Let Me Go and McCarthy's The Road as two speculative fiction/sci-fi novels that should prove to the world that speculative fiction can be as great as any other literature out there. I almost wish I was back in college so that I could write a paper comparing and contrasting the two, because they've got some really powerful similarities, but come from really different angles and perspectives. Novels like this do well what The Hunger Games did poorly.

Books To Compare: There's a rich tradition of classic novels set in a futuristic or exotic dystopian world, whether Thomas More's Utopia, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein1984Brave New World, or Fahrenheit 451Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer winner The Road makes a good comparison point, and this novel really stands up to it. I think you'd also get some mileage out of Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, as a nuanced coming-of-age story, and maybe something like Oliver Twist is a good precursor in that sense. Never Let Me Go doesn't use the same satire present in some of these novels, but there's no doubt that it comments on our society. And it packs an emotional punch that reaches far beyond any of these others with the exception of The Road. For more ideas, try plugging it in to What Should I Read Next?

Check out Never Let Me Go on Amazon.


  1. I've read Ishiguro's Remains of The Day. It was boring, but astoundingly well written. Thank you for this review, this book intrigues me now.

    1. I'd still like to get to Remains of the Day, because I was very impressed with the movie. This one certainly isn't a thriller, but I'm curious to see if you'll like it.

  2. So, my aunt recommends the Pern series (about dragons and riders, etc.) Have you read them? And are they any good? You've probably read way more YA fantasy books than I have, so I trust your opinion!

    1. Amy, I think I only read one or two of them, and it's been a while, but here's my recollection:

      I know some people classify Anne McCaffrey's Pern stuff as YA, but I recall it dealing with the same kinds of complex and adult issues that I see in fiction for adults. I recall the first book or two to be well-written, with strong female protagonists, and refreshingly original both in terms of the plot and in terms of character motivations and relationships. I think I had a hard time "loving" some of the characters, but I suppose I could say that I "respected" them. I think that various of McCaffrey's novels have been voted in "best of" lists, so there are a lot of people who think she's at the top of the game. Since I haven't read her recently, I can't be a lot more specific, but I can say she's among the most capable popular sci-fi/fantasy writers.

      For other young adult stuff about Dragaons, I always liked Jane Yolen's Pit Dragon series. I know people who love Patricia C. Wrede's stuff as well, which might skew just a little younger.

    2. I've read a lot of McCaffery's solo works, and most of the Pern series. The first two or three are rather good; the remaining feels like soap opera - it's nice to know what the characters are up to now, but there isn't any maturing of the characters. They grow older but not more wiser.

      I have the same comment for any other of her series. The first books/stories lay the base for a very interesting world.

      There is a verse I quite like in Dragonsong. I still sing it occassionally. (The verse describes the kind of songs I like: "...the song was written as gay; Your voice is sad, your hands are slow...")

      Her books of short stories are fun reading. In these, she manages to create a new world, new characters, new plot, and its resolution. In less than 30 pages. One example I recall: Get of the Unicorn.

      If you like to read about singing in a fantasy setting, McCaffrey's 'Crystal Singer' series is quite good, I'm told. (I gave up reading her stories at that point when I realised the main character was a repeat personality from her other series.)

      I am reminded of Spellsinger by Alan Dean Foster. I don't recall wheather there are dragons, but there are people who are animals - not twee as in Narnia, but with Personality.

      If you're into swords and sorcery type fantasy, Eddings' The Belgariad series is rather fun. Their other series are more of the same (same type of characters with different names, no character maturation). I read these in high school, but I find it in the SF section in a bookshop.

      I really enjoyed Robert Asprin's 'Myth' series. It's comic fantasy, with character maturation, good dialogue.

      If I recall any more YA fantasy books with dragons, I'll post it here.

    3. Correction: the quote from the verse is "...the tune was written as gay..."

  3. I've loved Ishiguro's work since I read 'Remains', and I think it's achingly beautiful.even when I don't understand it (as in 'A Pale View of Hills'). My personal favourite would be 'An Artist of the Floating World'. Ishiguro has a powerful way of getting under his protagonists' skin and drawing the reader right in there with him.

    This book was unusual, both in the SF elements and in the unfolding horror of the plot. (Indeed, I'd classify it as psychological horror more than SF.) The setting is more me because, once again, it's my home. These are real towns and real streets, I've probably been to some of them (and Hailsham is the name of a small town, near where I grew up, I've been through it often).

    I think all his books have a deep sadness - I remember crying at some point in every one - but usually it's a more mundane sort of sorrow at missed opportunities and similar regrets. 'The Remains of the Day' gripped me in the same way as this book did you - at first the narrator seemed alien and cold, but gradually the character unfolds and you see the soul inside. It's a beautiful and tragic thing.

    1. Thanks for the comments, vet. I definitely feel like I need to read other Ishiguro, and I'm glad I've finally come across him. This one was a great introduction for me, and I'm definitely a fan now. The additional impressive thing to me is that as far as I can tell, he writes stuff that would be accessible to and appropriate for younger people in their teens, people who would realistically not be up for something like Moby-Dick, which is my current benchmark for a masterpiece. So Ishiguro manages both elegance and simplicity, which to me is one of the most amazing gifts.

    2. Vet, you speak so eloquently about Ishiguro's work. There is a passage in "Remains" that I have literally gone back to about 20 times since I first read it about 10 years ago. It's about missed opportunities and regrets as you mention, and it just haunts me, in a good way. Never Let Me Go certainly had the same haunting quality.

  4. " Three fourths of the way through, though, I started making connections between all the layers of meaning, and by the end I was really hooked, both emotionally and intellectually"

    I love when that happens. This book sounds great.

    Here's an award, should you choose to accept it:

    1. Thanks so much for the award! I'll have to see where the an "11 questions" thing fits into my reviewing schedule, but it sounds like fun.

  5. Glad you liked this one! I've read a short story by this author (Village After Dark) which I didn't find that impressive in writing, but the execution was fabulous! Been intrigued by this writer since, but haven't read a full-length work yet.

    1. Yeah, I REALLY liked it. I'm pretty sure I need to read everything else he's written now, because he has such a deft, subtle touch. It IS interesting, because usually I'm wowed by an authors ability as a word-smith, but that's really no what Ishiguro is going for.

  6. I read 'never let me go' a couple of years back and it has stuck with me till now.. Even hearing the title or looking at the book will bring a feeling of sadness to me.. I don't think any other novel that i've read got the same kind Of effect on me

    1. There's definitely a really haunting sadness to it...though I felt like it was a sort of beautiful, poignant sadness, sometimes even lightly done, which really contrasted with the horror in a book like The Road, for instance. Or even something like Tim Obrien's The Things They Carried.

  7. And by the way.. I could never bring myself tO finish reading the road as it's too 'gloom and doom' for me..

    1. Yeah, same with my mother-in-law. I respect that it's not a book for everyone...but I do think that there is a lot of value to be gained from it should one choose to read/complete it. I remember the first time that I read it, I almost didn't finish it either. Through a series of coincidences, I then found further opportunities to read it again, and it's become a part of my personal literary canon and shaped my reading taste, for better or worse.

    2. Maybe i should give it another try. U see, i hate not finishing a book.. It's like a blemish in my reading record.. I started reading to improve my command of the language as english is not my mother tongue.. But my mum used to teach english in high school and she's an avid reader herself.. She got all of my siblings started with reading english using the sesame street collection.. That was way back in the 80's.. Then each of us develop our own 'reading' taste.. My eldest brother with his sci-fi fantasy thing, another brother who only reads harry potter *sigh* and then there's me, who reads practically everything.. Even the ketchup bottle ingredients list.. But i recently got a baby,she's 7mo now.. So yea, haven't been actively reading lately.. It's 4am in malaysia, just finish feeding my baby..
      I'm rambling, aren't i? Should get back to sleep then.. Haha

    3. My wife is a very deep thinker, and probably more thoughtful and emotionally developed than I am... and so I've been very curious about how she would react to The Road, which really hit me hard (I've sort of wondered if it might be more of a Dad book than a Mom book). But for a while, while she was pregnant and we had an infant and she wasn't sleeping as much as she'd like, I recommended that she not read The Road. She's a bit of an insomniac, especially when she can't turn her brain off, and The Road is one that really haunts you. Now that the really tough time of sleep-deprivation and emotional anxiety is ameliorated, I've told her that I'd like to know what she thinks. But I'm also a little nervous that she won't be able to get it out of her head, in a bad way.