One of the hallmarks of Kazuo Ishiguro’s precise writing style is the singular way in which he slowly releases crucial information through his first-person narrators. In Never Let Me Go this technique is handled as well as ever, and the revelation presented through the character of Kathy is more disturbing than anything else Ishiguro has unveiled.
There are sinister undertones from the start. The indistinct setting of ‘England, late 1990s’ is made genuinely mysterious by the details that are laid over it. The inhabitants of this version of England include ‘donors’ and ‘carers’, who are the products of an upbringing that is at once idyllic and oddly ritualistic. As a carer, Kathy drives around an undefined and disorientating landscape, tending to her donors and recalling her childhood at a place called Hailsham, which she is now incapable of locating.
Then, almost a third of the way through the book, we learn that Kathy and her peers are clones, created for the purpose of donating their organs. The novel shifts from enigmatic mystery to science fiction primarily concerned with exactly how human its characters are. The science fiction element is very subtle; while the theme of human cloning is prominent, Ishiguro seems more interested in engaging with the clones on a human level.
This means that throughout the novel there is a dualism between science and the arts. While Ishiguro does not elaborate on the scientific techniques that have created the clones, ideas regarding scientific progress permeate the book. Meanwhile, there is a great emphasis on art, literature and music, with multiple references in the text. The implication is that the clones are more human if they understand and appreciate these things.
In fact, they are never presented as anything less than human and, crucially, it is their interaction with one another that conveys this. We are shown the full extent of their lives, from the games of their childhoods through to their struggles, as adults, to understand their function and fate. This makes for a moving climax: we do not pity the clones for their condition as much as we empathise with their emotions.
The scientific side of the novel is largely manifest in issues of morality. Obviously, the notion of manufacturing beings designed for nothing more than giving up their organs is fraught with ethical problems. But in the alternate England Ishiguro has created, the overriding question concerns the quality of life that these clones are expected to lead. Those brought up at Hailsham are able to have fully developed lives, in spite of their brevity. However, this humanises the donors more than most people are comfortable with: they would prefer them to be soulless providers of spare body parts. It is the conflict between these two perspectives, and the ways in which Ishiguro’s characters negotiate this conflict, that drives Never Let Me Go.
Peter Kemp, The Times: 'A clear frontrunner to be the year's most extraordinary novel'
Theo Tait, The Telegraph: 'the novel repays the effort in spades, building to a surprisingly moving climax and echoing around the brain for days afterwards'
Sarah Kerr, The New York Times: 'it delivers images of odd beauty and a mounting existential distress that hangs around long after we read it'
Frank Kermode, The London Review of Books: 'Everything is expertly arranged, as it always is in Ishiguro'
M. John Harrison, The Guardian: '[An] extraordinary and, in the end, rather frighteningly clever novel'
Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post: 'the best Ishiguro has written since the sublime The Remains of the Day'
Tobias Hill, The Times: 'Never Let Me Go is anything but a flavourless piece of writing. This is a fine novel'
Geoff Dyer, The Independent on Sunday: 'intricate, subtly unsettling and moving'
Siddhartha Deb, New Statesman: 'Ishiguro has always been good at presenting the past - and childhood - as a kind of universal affliction, but probably never so well as in this novel'