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Kazuo Ishiguro - Never Let Me Go (2005)

It was interesting reading this so soon after The Children of Men by P D James. Both depend for their premises on a notion usually taken as science fictional, and develop that premise as a novel of the corruption of the British middle classes, and I have some of the same reactions to both.

When I was a kid I used to rate books both by how good I thought they were and how much I liked them, and this is a good example of the kind of book that drove me to do that. It is good on the literary level – I can’t fault the writing, or technique for constructing the story, or Ishiguro’s intent as I read it, but I don’t like the book at all. I don’t like the landscape, I don’t like the characters, and I don’t like the argument I find myself believing it makes.

Before I sat down to write this I thought I was going to stop there, but I find I want to say more. (Though first I will just observe that this book was shortlisted for both the Man Booker and the Clarke Award, and that only my own past experience as a Clarke Award juror allows me to understand the latter.)

Landscape first, because this is where there are the strongest similarities with The Children of Men. The novel is set in an England that stopped developing socially or environmentally some decades before the book was written, but makes use of a major scientific development that we have not yet achieved in our world. (The book was published in 2005. Some of the characters go to Wales sometimes, but they only interact in England, and if there was any mention whatsoever of any wider world I missed it.) To the extent we see anything of the environment or of the wider society of the nation, it is apparent that the development on which the book was premised has not impacted very much at all. The landscape, housing, workplaces and occupations, and social relations and concerns shown are all those of the English middle classes, familiar from depiction in English literature over the several decades of my reading lifetime. All of this feels roughly late-Sixties: there are no radios or music players in the cars, but music is available on cassettes (a key plot point), and the landscape is depicted with a shabby still-there-after-the-war-but-not-yet-redeveloped-in-the-Seventies kind of feel. Alongside this, the originating development that drives the plot is explicitly told, almost in parenthesis, as a development by a rogue scientist, working outside of normal circles, and reluctantly taken into use. There is no sense of the real web of science and technological development. In this book this solo achievement has been allowed to stand in isolation in an otherwise unchanged nation, with no mention of ongoing development in that or any other field, and with no parallel or contrasting impacts anywhere to be seen.

The least of my problems with the book is that I don’t like the characters. Or rather, the one and only character, Kathy, the narrator, as we see nothing of any other except insofar as she narrates their direct interaction. She is, I suspect, highly unreliable, but the book accurately depicts her self-obsession, and since under the circumstances of the book her self-obsession is completely justified I am prepared to hail this as a triumph of literary realisation. The fact that I don’t like her is of course completely beside any literary point.

Finally I dislike the argument that I believe is made by the book. Which is that the best you can hope for from life is to live and then die. Education and art are shown to be futile, derivative and dispensable. Love is contingent and fruitless, providing no basis for commitment or growth. The science of the premise and the real consequences of the use made of it in this society are slightly shameful, something you would rather not talk about and prefer to hide out of sight and thought. Recognition of any moral obligations to other people beyond the basest utiliarian minimum are shown to be futile. And Kathy shows no signs of any understanding of the ethics of interdependence and caring for others.

Let me be clear: none of this invalidates Ishiguro’s literary intent or achievement. This is a dystopia, intended to show us the consequences of our failing in humanity, and it succeeds. Ishiguro is not obliged to show that life and love and death are meaningful and real. He is entitled to make me work for my own meaning, and find it elsewhere. And he did.

And because of the places and ways I have found meaning in my life, I really, really dislike this book.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
30th Jan, 2015 21:34 (UTC)
I liked the film, and read the book on that basis though I can't remember much about the latter, apart from the odd scene or two. I can recall far more of the film, which had that same vibe of the technology must have been invented in the 50s or 60s, because everything is stuck in a weird 50s/60s feeling universe.

In both film and book I was struck how resigned the characters are to their fate. Even when they are 'rebelling' it is kind of like "I shall be writing a strongly worded letter to the Times".

A book on similar themes that is much keener on lifting rocks to look at the ethics and consequences is the YA novel 'Unwind' by Neal Shusterman.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )


Caroline M

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