In Kazuo Ishiguro‘s Never Let Me Go, Kathy H. (truly, I hate that Kafka-reminiscent thing where a surname gets compressed down to initials in a Western setting. It’s a South Indian norm, and not quite as dehumanising or alienating or marginalising or off-balancing as it probably is to a Western reader, so I always forget that it means something when I read it) is a “carer”, coming to the end of her days in that near-professional capacity. (Precisely what the “carer” does is not made clear, though it obviously is something akin to what nurses do, albeit in a very specific area.) Kathy is thirty-one years old, and as she wraps up her last year as a carer she looks back on her life, at the people she’s known, the people she grew up with, in a tidy-minded attempt to make her facts clear to us, and to herself.
This meticulous tidying makes Kathy’s first-person narrative a gem of restrained passion – different from but still akin to Stevens‘ or Masuji Ono‘s own still-smoking embers – but it also allows her to get away with what runs through her story as a recurring theme: Kathy and her peers are told what they need to know about themselves obliquely, subtly, so that they can dance around the subject of themselves without using the brutally honest terminology that would pain them, and pain us readers, and perhaps encourage them to protest against the lives they live, and the people who make them live that way.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Self-consciously, as honestly as possible, Kathy H. reminisces about her life growing up at Hailsham, an institute for children like herself; her friend Ruth, her involvement with the sociocultural activities at Hailsham, her misfit friend Tommy. Hailsham is apparently a place of some stature, amongst the people Kathy lives and works with – Kathy is, in her own estimation, a child of privilege, both institutional and through her friendship with Ruth social. The people she cares for, the “donors”, become her wards not just in that she nurses them but also in that she has this superior standing, one from which she condescends to connect with them.
So much is clear from the first few pages. Ishiguro’s prose, via Kathy, is always restrained, always hinting at the truths beneath the polite phrasing. Through Kathy’s sensible eye we see the difficulty of growing up different, perhaps superior, yet without full knowledge of what one is or isn’t – a typical childhood state, stretched to an around-the-edges-chilly degree.
Kathy traces both her changing relationship with Ruth as well as her growing, never blatantly spoken place in society – how she is both unique and outcast, and how in the insular institution of Hailsham she is marginalised entirely from the nation in which she ostensibly lives. As the children assimilate the dribbles of information handed out to them and finally leave Hailsham, they are still sequestered away from “normal” society, looking to root themselves in status, privilege or debased reality – they are rootless and searching.
As Kathy becomes a carer, and a successful one, she meets Ruth and Tommy again, to build relationships with them that transcend or build on their childhood bonds and conflicts. Together they can try to better their lives, defer the inevitable.
Never Let Me Go is not a novel about the power of the masses to better their lives, nor is it really an exploration of the rights and concerns of an enslaved class of people. Rather, through the multifaceted lens of these seemingly larger concerns we are forced – through Kathy’s own delicate refusal to speak in brutal honesty – to deal with the conceptions of ageing, of death, of constantly being managed by people whose only purpose in life is to ameliorate the sufferings of others. An entire language of sensitivity grows up around these issues, in our own world as much as in Kathy’s own rather inhumane insensitive one – not that Kathy ever acknowledges it as such. Kathy’s narrative is that of acceptance, of resignation to what she must face and what she might suffer, and what was kept from her was not just that she must face and suffer these things, but that she would not be allowed to lay bare these sufferings except to readers completely displaced from the people she is meant to benefit.
Never Let Me Go is one of the most unsettling books I’ve read this year, and it stayed with me for hours after I put it down. It’s not a novel that raises questions or solves them, instead simply reminding us of similar restraints, and shadings, that we can see in the world around us – I for one will not be able to walk into a hospital or a school without some trepidation for a while.
So. This isn’t an airport novel, or a novel for the adrenaline junkie. It’s a quiet compeller, and it will leave you sombre and haunted. It’s one of the better things I’ve read this month, this year, and almost in a while. I recommend it.