“The ways of the world were very puzzling…” – ‘The Chrysalids’, John Wyndham
Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go, recently made into a well-received film, shows a strange intrigue in the routines of life, and the mysteries of being human. Set in what appears to be a shadowy future of an alternatively-set England, in which the country’s turmoil is hidden from the central characters of the novel, we see how relationships are defined and tested, and how the idea of having an identity and future ambitions are constantly complicated by a larger force which the protagonists are unaware of. Although this is described as a type of sci-fi novel, seen in the sense of unreal and in the obscure references to the hidden outside threats, this novel is also a novel about coming of age, and dealing with emotions. Governed by unspoken rules and boundaries, and following uniform routines which they do not fully understand, the readers follow Kathy and her friends Tommy and Ruth as they struggle to understand their own identities, as well as their relationships with each other. What seems to be an English boarding school for the children never feels as innocent as it purports, adding sinister undertones throughout the novel as they children begin to wake up to the world around them.
Throughout the novel, there is always a sense of wonder and awe at ordinary things in world, suggesting that the children do not have access to the norms of life, and illustrating just how sheltered they are. The scene, for example, in which the characters come across a glass-windowed office with its office workers, shows how this sense of normality has been removed for the children, this is life from which they are exempt and therefore revere because they cannot have it. This, coupled with the continuous assertions that these children are “special” quickly reveals the feeling that the children have been reserved for an agenda which they are not fully aware of. Throughout the novel the children’s true identity and future purpose are revealed to them, and rather than giving showing, dramatic revelations, Ishiguro lets this in through drip by drip, in quiet and subtle ways so that even as the truth is given, it is vague and feels half-hidden, leaving the readers as confused as the characters do about reality of circumstances. The children and their peers are never given a limelight moment in which their emotions take over and dramatically respond to these ‘truths’, rather this is taken in calmly and passively, as if it is something they were aware of all along, even as they do not understand their reality.
Memory then, and personal interpretation, becomes a very significant plot device here, as the narrative of the story relies on an older Kathy retelling her earlier life, which is always tinged with a sad hindsight, diffusing the narrative even as she shows a bright, young innocent Kathy who is still finding herself in the world. There is always a suggestion that Kathy herself is not always sure of her truth, which is shown in her lack of confidence in remembering some scenes, as well as the ways some of her memories do not correspond with the recollections of others. Throughout the novel, Kathy picks out certain conversations and scenes, seemingly innocent when taken as themselves, and yet she is able to dig out meanings and hidden theories to make sense of their restrictions and confused lives, rather than continue meandering through their lives blindly.
Each character undergoes their own personal struggle and attempt to create their niche in the world, from Tommy’s ‘temper tantrums’ and his goal to become peaceful, Ruth’s longings to impress her peers and attain popularity, and Kathy’s own goal to understand herself and her destiny, as well as to come to terms with it. Yet this sense of establishing individuality is always undermined by the sense of suspense and mystery which follows the novel, even as it feels that the truth as has been given. What we are left with however, is their sense of affiliation and their bonds with each other, even as they try to push each other away, we see how the characters seek refuge in each other in the realisation of their own powerlessness.
Features such as ‘the Gallery’, in which the children of the school religiously and rigidly submit their art and creations to every year, for reasons that they are unable to discern or question, becomes significant in their lives, as it creates goal to aspire to, and shows how the school has become a microcosm with its own rules and occupations that seem far removed from the outside world. As one character asserts the reason could be, the creativity and paintings serves to reveal “what is inside our souls” suggesting that this has been questioned, emphasising the ‘special’ nature of the children. Also implicit is the ‘ Madame’ who represents the people of the outside world:, her inability to engage with and relate to the children highlights their invisible differences, and begins to reveal the alienation that the children will feel increasingly as they become older. Similarly, the way that the children’s teachers struggle to maintain their own version of normality inside the school, as well as their own conflicts in telling them the truth of their lives, or choosing to shield them, only serves to demonstrate the background debates which is occurring on how to treat the children. Always then, do we get the impression of adults being in control, of the their routines and fate, and of the truth, while the main characters are kept in childish ignorance, unable to fully comprehend the importance of the routine checks in their physical health, their ‘creativity’ and the importance of their ‘training’.
While Kathy epitomises their lack of reaction and passivity in dealing with her ultimate fate and purpose, even this acceptance feels detached and muted, rather than becoming a spectacle. Without revealing too much of the story, it is clear that the children accept their fate despite not fully understanding it, a sad conclusion to their friendship and their close bonds. This is not, however, the ultimate end result of Kathy’s memories, and this is not to say that their struggles to avoid their mysterious fate is what presides. Instead, what endures in this novel is the sense of love and friendship which quietly builds up throughout – the message from the author resonates long after you have read it, making us remember what it is to be human. Always there is a sense of beauty in the narrative, and the events and characters of the novel seep into our minds more effectively due to how well-crafted they are, and how they quietly yet profoundly affect our sense of humanity and individuality.
What is left with the reader is the impact of the characters struggles, making us want to make the most of our freedom and our unrestricted lives to prove our humanity and vitality As one reviewer aptly summed up “The impression I get, however, is that Ishiguro is less interested in the sci-fi aspect of this than in using it as an allegory for us all, the stunted limitations of many of our lives, and our blithe acceptance of our ultimate fate.” This is a read which may not appeal to all, its lingering, wistful tone which may feel frustrating, especially with a bittersweet conclusion which may not feel satisfying. However, while there are heartbreaking scenes, mostly depicted through strained, almost-silent interactions and a feeling of powerlessness, there is a stronger sense of emotions being evoked in ourselves and in the background of the novel, urging us to hold onto love, friendship and our ambitions, and leading us to question our perceptions on what it is to have a ‘soul’.
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (Faber & Faber: Windsor, 2005) pp.272 £12.99