Literary people are generally frightened of the term science fiction, and reviewers have been struggling to find a different way to describe Kazuo Ishiguro’s compelling new novel. It isn’t properly an “alternate history,” as some writers have suggested. There are certain points of scientific and political implausibility that locate this story in a world much different from our own. On the other hand, phrases like dystopian fantasy aren’t quite appropriate to the melancholy and frankly introspective style. In the end, maybe it’s best to describe “Never Let Me Go” simply as an Ishiguro-novel.
Like “The Remains of the Day,” and “An Artist of the Floating World,” this is a fanatically stylized, obsessively controlled, exquisitely strange book. The plot inheres within the vast and disorienting monologue of Kathy H., our narrator, but the focus is neither the story nor its teller. Instead, Ishiguro seems most interested in the interaction between narrator and story: the way the story asserts itself, and the way Kathy possesses and is possessed by her narrative.
The crux of “Never Let Me Go” is that Kathy H. is a clone. Her birth is sanctioned by the government so that she can give her organs to those in need of transplants. She passes her youth at a school called Hailsham, surrounded by others like herself and isolated from the rest of the English population. Like Ishiguro’s other narrators, she spends a lot of time trying to locate the pivot-points in her life, but this activity is complicated by the fact that hers is a prescribed existence. In addition to pausing over the joys and difficulties of daily life at Hailsham, she tries to locate moments at which the details of her destiny became clear. What she quickly realizes is that she always knew what awaited her, it just took some time to realize what it was she knew.
In a way, “Never Let Me Go” is the classic coming-of-age story: a novel about learning to see what’s always there. It’s also a book about a fantasy world, and it’s successful in this regard exactly because it’s so much a coming-of-age story. The interest of this novel depends largely on the compelling representation of an alternate-reality, yet the story is narrated by a character who is herself an inhabitant of that alternate-reality. Ishiguro has to make sure that Kathy doesn’t dwell on things that would be familiar to another inhabitant of her world, but he also has to find a way to describe the details of that world to his readers. By writing a first-person narrative about childhood, Ishiguro reenacts the gradual awakening that characterizes the maturation of a young mind. His world is revealed to us as if we were children rather than tourists.
There is an authentic and moving sadness about the way Kathy H. negotiates her past. Unlike many of Ishiguro’s narrators, she is keenly and poignantly self-aware; a far cry, certainly, from the infuriatingly self-deceptive butler Stevens in “Remains of the Day.” But at the same time, there is something unnatural and disconcerting about Kathy, which she shares with the narrative-figures in Ishiguro’s other novels.
The problem is her relationship to her own writing. In a novel that purports to be a memoir rather than a cross-section of its narrator’s consciousness, Kathy doesn’t seem to have much control over the story she tells. Her writing is oddly deliberate, and her memories impose themselves in a way she isn’t always able to control. It’s as if someone has given her pen and paper, and told her that she has all the time she needs to consider each sentence, yet she isn’t permitted to change anything once she’s written it down.
To say that Kathy is a kind of memory-digesting machine would be to tear out the emotional heart of this story. But there is something wrong with her, or else something very odd about the environment in which she writes. The effect can be as off-putting as it is compelling. Anyone who enjoys Ishiguro will enjoy this book, and anyone who doesn’t will have a hard time. To the virgin reader, one can only say that “Never Let Me Go” is an example of high-style; as idiosyncratic, in its way, as anything by Rushdie or Faulkner or Woolf.