Rereading: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the finest and most accomplished contemporary writers of his generation. The short story author, television writer and novelist, included twice in Granta’s list of Best Young British Writers, has over the past twenty-five years produced a body of work which is just as critically-acclaimed as it is popular with the general public. Like the writings of Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro’s work is concerned with creating discursive platforms for issues of class, ethics, ethnicity, nationhood, place, gender and the uses and problems surrounding artistic representation.As a Japanese immigrant who came to Great Britain in 1960, Ishiguro has used his unique position and fine intellectual abilities to contemplate what it means to be British in the contemporary era. As ‘Never Let Me Go’, Kazuo Ishiguro’s unsettling story of a community of clones, comes to cinema screens, Rachel Cusk finds herself both intrigued and repelled by the novel.

Never Let Me Go is Ishiguro’s sixth novel and has proved to be his most popular book since his Booker prize-winning heyday. As with The Remains of the Day, there is a film, replete with English celebrities. Ishiguro’s ventriloquism announces itself in the novel’s first lines: “My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years. That sounds long enough, I know, but actually they want me to go on for another eight months, until the end of this year.” The “now'” and the “actually”, the absorbed ordinariness, the vagueness of “they” and the precision of “eight months, until the end of this year”: Ishiguro’s ear is acute, and these are the verbal mannerisms of the public services sector in the humdrum modern world. Kathy is a “carer”, and indeed the notion of the “caring professions” represents precisely that elision of the institutional and the personal that generates the undertone of disturbance in so much of his work. There are undertones of Kafka, too, in these words, and in the immediate sense they convey of the reader’s imprisonment in the narrator, and thus of the narrator’s actual powerlessness. Another elision is the humdrum and the sinister: triviality is the harbinger of evil, and Ishiguro’s prose from the outset is conspicuously dull with trivia. Kathy calls the people she cares for “donors”, and on the third page she says of one of them: “He’d just come through his third donation, it hadn’t gone well, and he must have known he wasn’t going to make it.” And so the association, the elision, is swiftly clarified. This is a book about evil, the evil of death, the evil of banality: “he must have known he wasn’t going to make it.”

Never Let Me Go takes place in the late 20th century, in an England where human beings are cloned and bred for the purposes of harvesting their organs once they reach adulthood. These “clones” are reared in boarding school-type institutions: much is made, in the clone community, of the differences between one institution and another. Hailsham, where Kathy grew up as inmate before her “promotion”, is mythologised for its special ethos: a Hailsham childhood is idealised, with somewhat grotesque and faintly Dickensian sentimentality, by those who were “born” into less fortunate circumstances. Hailsham is a grand place whose ample grounds encompass a pond, a pavilion and, towards its perimeter fence, a sinister area known as “the woods”. It is staffed by “guardians” who have the quasi-parental function of the boarding school housemaster or mistress: these worthies bear the knowledge of their charges’ fate as best they can. Once the children have reached maturity they leave their school-type community and embark on a twilit adult life, in which they are given limited access to the normal world while they await the summons to make their first “donation”. This is where Kathy, as carer, comes in: she is the attending angel, seeing her portfolio of donors through the series of operations and consequent deteriorations that will lead to their certain death, or “completion”. This role has extended her own lease on life, and so she must endure the survivor’s moral and emotional suffering. And indeed, it is her capacity for emotion that provides the narrative occasion, that makes her the writer of this account.

It would seem from this description that Never Let Me Go is a work of unremitting bleakness and gratuitous sordidity. At the very least the question might be asked what style of literary enterprise this is. It isn’t science fiction – indeed its procedures are the very reverse of generic, for there is no analogy at work in the text, which instead labours to produce its iterative naturalism as a kind of sub-set or derivation of our own. In this sense it has more in common with a novel such as Camus’s The Plague, in which a dystopian but familiar reality dramatises the dilemmas of the age. But the dilemmas of our age are not really those of Ishiguro’s dystopia: vainglorious science, meddling with the moral structure of life, is a kind of B-list spook whose antics have yet to offer any substantial intellectual or practical challenge to the populace.

Read the rest here.


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