Review: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

kazuo_ishiguro Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is a weird little book.  Trying to tell you about it without giving it all away is the challenge I’m facing, but I’m going to give it a shot because it’s better not to know too much about it before you read it.  And I want you to read it.  

Set in England in the late 1990s, it’s narrated by Kathy H., who we learn right away is a “carer”, taking care of donors.  She doesn’t explain this thoroughly so we’re left with a vague idea of what she means, an ominous feeling that doesn’t ever go away while reading the book.  When we meet Kath, she’s in her early 30s and has been doing her job for 11 years, but is nearing the end of her career.  Much of the story is Kath’s memories of her days at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school, and her friendships with Ruth and Tommy.  

At Hailsham there are cliques, like at any school.  There is teasing and bullying.  Rumors are flying and there is pressure to conform.  Yet this is a prestigious place, and the students here are special.  They are parentless but they have “guardians” who treat them with great care, making sure they are healthy and educated, but not having any sort of close personal relationship with them.   Students know they are not like their guardians or like people outside of Hailsham.  Much importance is put on creating artwork, hoping to have it selected for ‘the gallery’.  One guardian in particular gets frustrated with the students’ banter about their futures, and angrily asks them to stop with their chatter, setting them straight about who and what they are, spelling it out for them that the course of their lives has been pre-determined.  It’s a revelation for the reader, but the students already ‘know, but don’t know’, and their reaction to this outburst is subdued.  

The students grow up and leave Hailsham for The Cottages, where they go on to more training and learn from more experienced students.  It’s a bit like going on to college.  They develop adult relationships and have some freedom before moving along to their intended ‘careers’.  Tommy and Ruth become a serious couple at the cottages, although Tommy has always had feelings for Kath, and this triangle persists into adulthood. 

Reading Never Let Me Go is like peeling an onion; it is parceled out to the reader layer by layer, each chapter foreshadowing the next.   The writing is quietly powerful and deceptively simple.  It is futuristic and literary, infused with a sense of deep sadness and futility.  It is about hope, and people, and society, and it makes you think about what it means to be human.   Does love make us human?  Is it our bodies?  Our minds?  Our creativity or curiousity?  

Have you read this book?  If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  My book club will be discussing it next month and I can’t wait to see what everyone thought of it.

24 Responses

  1. Boy, does that sound intriguing!

  2. I’m glad you liked it! I reviewed it a while ago. Not at ALL what I was expecting, but it was good anyway. I really enjoyed it and I’m going to try and read some more of his work.

  3. My book club read this several years ago. I don’t remember the conversation, just remember that there was LOTS of conversation. They either liked it or hated it. It’s one of those books.

  4. I’ve been wanting to read this one for awhile now. It sounds so good! Thank you for the great review, Lisa!

  5. It was so difficult to write about this one without giving it away! I felt frustrated with how apathetic the characters were when they learned their actual fate. Although I think it is a true reflection of what they were, it bugged me as a reader.

  6. I really enjoyed this book. I read it awhile back and can’t remember the details, I just remember being swept away by it – it was so different that what I expected!

  7. I was majorly spoiled on the ending before I started reading this one, and I’ve always wondered how I’d have reacted to it if I hadn’t known. I did enjoy it anyways, though, right up until the end – I think your choice of “futility” is particularly apt… it just felt like the characters (and the author) just gave up, which I didn’t really care for.

  8. I read this one a few years ago and remember loving it. I agree with your judgment that it is a “weird little book.” I think what I like about it most was that quality of peeling an onion that you mentioned.

  9. I haven’t read it, and have no idea what I’ll think of it. I’m intrigued, though if the premise sounds kind of scary in a sci fi sort of way. (Nick Sagan’s novels for example.)

  10. I bought the book a couple of years and it is sitting on my book shelf. Now is the time for me to pick it up. I will be out of school next Wed for a few days this will give me time to actually read it.
    Thanks so much for the review.

    Seaside Book Worm

  11. Lend me your copy?

  12. I found an interview with the author and even he seemed to have a hard time explaining it! Sounds like a “weird little book” to be sure but also kind of interesting at the same time.

  13. I read this book last year and found it very unsettling all the way through. It builds atmosphere greatly, but I found the compliance of the characters frustrating. I wrote my review over at The Octogon if you want to read it. I enjoyed reading yours, it is a difficult book to describe.

  14. Having read this and sharing your dilemma of how to describe and not give anything away, you did a FABULOUS job! and very careful, too. excellent! And you think you will find your book discussion to bring up even more interesting things you may not have thought of – ours did! but again, I’d give too much away if I shared more.

  15. Loved it–it was one of my favorite reads this year! You can look at my review if you want to…

  16. “a weird little book” is quite an endoresment! I’ll have to add this to my wish list …

  17. Yes, I agree. Weird , frustrating ,futuristic,unsettling, futility are all adjetives that aptly describe this book. I enjoyed it but at this same time can’t say I finished it with a good feeling or even a sense of “wow, can’t wait to tell my friends to read it”. It was kind of like the analogy of seeing a boat float downstream towards a waterfall. You are hoping that someone will try and stop it. The occupants seem resigned to their fate. You have to keep watching to see what will happen and wish you could throw them a lifeline. Yes, definitely a book to spark a heated discussion at a book club meeting. The whole ethical issue of “does the end justify the means??”

  18. Sounds like an interesting book. I’ll have to check it out.

  19. […] our club discussed Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishi-something-or-other (my review can be found here).  The reviews were mixed but the discussion was terrific.  One thing I so enjoy about being in a […]

  20. I have no idea how I will be able to review this read. I’m almost done. It’s the strangest book, ever. I’m not sure if I like it.

  21. I actually read this book a few weeks ago. I loved it, simply.
    For every word, for every piece of atmosphere it created. I particularly apprecieted how this author achieved in reminding us how it was to be a child or a teenager and finally concluded by a kind of catch phrase “On any country, on any society, we are all the same!”

  22. Does anybody know or can offer an interpretation of what the word “Hailsham” pretends to mean? Does it stand for “Health Sham”??

  23. I loved this book, and had a really hard time selling my book club on it without giving away too much. We had an interesting discussion, linking it to a Jodi Picoult book.

  24. […] Books on the Brain […]

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