Kazuo Ishiguro's most recent novel, Never Let Me Go, arrived on bookstore shelves in 2005, but landed in my apartment only a few weeks ago, since I'm too cheap to buy books in hardcover. I'm cautious and cheap; I want to hear what people I trust say about a book before I spring for it.
People I trust seemed to like this one, and I'd already read Remains of the Day, and like others, admired the novelist's ability to communicate with understatement and grace his characters' inner lives. While that novel involves some of the obvious horrors of Europe in the Nazi years, Ishiguro describes events with great subtlety. He is an intimate writer in an age of broadcasters.
Never Let Me Go revolves around three young people, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy. Kathy tells the tale of their coming of age from the vantage point of a 31-year old "carer." We don't learn what that word means until quite some time later, but we do learn that as children, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy lived in a boarding school called Hailsham.
But this boarding school is not Exeter. A typical course of study doesn't constitute the curriculum. Rather, the kids paint, draw, and write, and then these works of art are collected to be placed in the school head's "gallery" for later use. The kids never receive exposure to the outside world. We never hear about parents; indeed, they don't seem to have any. The teachers are called "guardians," and the kids don't have last names. Ishiguro crafts a bizarro world that is both familiar and hauntingly strange.
As in Remains, Ishiguro uses the plights of Kathy and her friends to meditate on serious subject matter, which I don't want to give away. While I don't feel the subject to be completely fresh, I do admire Ishiguro's method of discussing it. He doesn't present a single lesson or rant; rather, he suggests we ponder these young peoples' lives when weighing in on the larger subject he addresses.
As vague as that last sentence of mine was, that is sometimes how vague Ishiguro's scenes are. Other than that the novel takes place in "England, late 1990s," we read no place or time markers. The absence of details makes it hard to get into the novel. I had trouble staying with the book when I first picked it up, and I had trouble picking it up each time I set it down. I feel I was able to finish it primarily because I have time on my hands right now, and I think it's a deficit in the book that one needs an abundance of leisure to become attached to it.
Then again, Ishiguro's never been a warm and cuddly writer. His style is formal and distant. Yet, the formality that was so revealing in Remains is obtrusive here. For instance, instead of just plunging into a scene, he has the narrator Kathy say, "And now I should tell you about when we did X," or, "Before I tell you about Y, I should tell you about X." This technique slows further an already glacial pace.
Ishiguro is interested in repressed characters, people who are unable to come to grips with their emotions when an event happens, and only years later can understand what they were feeling. He is interested in love deferred and lost souls. He uses quite an experimental mode in revealing these inner lives in Never Let Me Go, a book I ultimately respect more than I love.