A touching wail uttered into the emotional void that dwells between those frayed wires which hold together the complex relationship between the individual, community, and society.
The story is told by the protagonist (Kathy) in reflection of her past experiences and relationships, primarily those surrounding her two friends Tommy and Ruth. The setting of this tale lies somewhere between bleak and dystopian and idyllic and romanticized. This is due, in part, to the shifting perspectives as Kathy moves the narrative through her childhood experiences at a special boarding school and then on into adulthood and the greater world at large.
The book does not easily fit into any genres (as critics have noted). There are elements of science fiction, abject horror, and a more main stream coming of age tale. However, one theme that is woven into all the prose is a subtle, but insistent pace bolstered by continual promises of things to be revealed. Quite literally, in fact, as the protagonist-narrator will pretty much explicitly state that there is this thing coming up that she will tell you about next after she tells you something else first. Then, as promised, the new information is provided in the next chapter. At which point a new carrot is deftly waggled before the reader’s eyes toward the next prize. Yet, all the while we are aware that something is not quite right and that our worst fears will be realized before the end. Still, we go on. Working toward that uncomfortable satisfaction.
This is both frustrating and masterful. Especially with the light touch in which it is done. The parts that maddened me were in the voice of the character. The first-person style utilized by the author did well to establish a compelling tone and believability for the character. It suited the coming-of-age aspect of the book. We get a real feel of who these characters are (especially the main three), their motivations, their traits. All of it is very fleshed out and plants you right into the heart of the story which is a push-me-pull-you relationship entangled with love and friendship. It’s very nuanced and lacking in the usual melodrama that might be found in this type of book. On the flipside I felt that the character’s voice somewhat laborious at times when she would tell me about what was going on, tell me how she was going to tell me how she felt about it, say how she felt about it, and then sort of echo her thoughts on the subject. It wasn’t quite like that, but there was something repetitive in the way the character’s voice was used where she kept explaining how she was going to explain things. Just tell me! Stop telling me that you’re going to tell me all about it—I’m reading this thing, aren’t I? Perhaps, though, the dialog between the different characters could have been distinguished a little more to alleviate this concern? Now, I will freely admit some of my frustration was only due to the fact that I was fully engaged with the story and urgently looking to read more and know more. So, in that sense it all worked.
Science Fiction plays a role in this story as does horror. Again, the relationship the narrative has with these genres is subtle and perhaps tenuous. However, I feel it is there. They both permeate the background and behind-the-scenes elements that are propping up this world. And “propping” up the world is probably a good description of this. This is a book this is decidedly not deep in genre values. The world created by the author is essentially our world (somewhat in the vague future). Very little is painted to bolster up the science fiction aspects and create a cohesive world that stands on its own. To his credit the author does just enough to keep within the subtle tone which runs its course throughout the entire book. In that way, the book succeeds quite well. The sci-fi and horror aspects are splashed in for coloring and to highlight the primary story element which is the three-way relationship of these characters and how they care about each other in a world that has trouble caring about them.
It’s difficult to go into specifics for this book without spoiling the reveals. However, I will say that these do not really hit you over the head like a clever twist ending might. There is a building morose sort of tone that floats the plot toward its conclusion. Likewise, the horror is not overwrought. The horror lies more in what is not said, rather than what is said. Yet, there is a strength in all this un-saying that the author accomplishes—a universal strength which is demonstrative of what makes up good writing. In the same way that say, George Orwell painted a curious and time-tested novel with “1984.”
By using the familiar story of three young friends who grow up trying to navigate the complexities of love and caring and life and death without any kind of manual to guide their decisions, the author gets us focused on how we as people, as communities within communities, within a society, treat each other. The difficulty of marrying competing values. Balancing individual needs against societal needs. How we all may look out for each other or instead ourselves. What is important and what is not. And, of course, the futility of it all as life gets on. These are deep questions which are delicately woven into the fabric of this tale.
The strength in this story is the interrelationship of the three main characters and the author knows this. He focuses on them and brings in other characters or events as needed to show them go through a life lived. Through happy times, sad times, difficult times and easy times. It all feels familiar, yet what is going on in the background is not. And that, is what serves to highlight the real tragedies and joys of life.
Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic), this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space.” The podcast is available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Tune-In Radio, Stitcher, Google Play Music, YouTube or our website (www.nodeodorant.com).
Episode Link: https://nodeodorantinouterspace.wordpress.com/2019/02/19/review-never-let-me-go-kazuo-ishiguro