“My name is Kathy H.” Sometimes, great literature can start as simple as that. Never Let Me Go is the sixth novel of Kazuo Ishiguro, who’s not only been awarded the Booker Prize but also won the Nobel Prize in Literature. As is customary with Ishiguro, the language of the narrator is simple, almost innocent, yet there’s always a sense that something sinister lurks beneath the surface. Why does Kathy not have a surname? The answers are hidden in the unfolding narrative, which turns out to be a deeply moving tale about friendship, love and the inevitability of death.
Never Let Me Go is set in an alternative England of the 1990s where human clones are raised solely to provide their vital organs for humans. The narrator, Kathy H., is one of the clones. At the time of the narrative, she is working as a “carer” and is soon to become a “donor.” In true Ishiguro fashion, it dawns only gradually on the reader what precisely that means. Only by connecting the fragments of Kathy’s memory do we recognise the bleak truth of her reality.
In his Nobel Lecture 2017, Ishiguro said that for him, the essential thing about stories is that they “communicate feelings,” that they connect humans beyond all bounds. Never Let Me Go is a beautiful example for that. You’re immediately drawn into Kathy’s world and feel with her. Her friendship with Tommy and Ruth, which forms the centre of the narrative, is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. Their love, sorrows and pain are ours. And that’s precisely Ishiguro’s point: As much as society tries to dehumanize Kathy and her friends, they can’t hide their humanity. And so we‘re asked to confront a fundamental question: What does it really mean to be human?
“But in the end stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?”Kazuo Ishiguro in his Nobel Lecture
Ishiguro’s unique writing style shines through on every page. If you’re familiar with some of his other works, you probably know that Ishiguro is a master at telling-not-telling. He’s dropping little hints throughout his stories, but he’s never quite spelling them out so in the end we’re left to do much of the imagining ourselves. It’s like he’s giving us little puzzle pieces that we’ve to connect to get the full picture. In the end, we roughly know what pieces go together, but there are still a lot of gaps that we have to fill in ourselves.
There’s an air of mystery surrounding the characters right from the beginning, a sense that there is something not quite right with them, but you can’t point your finger at what it is. And so you keep turning the pages because you want to know what it is. I think it’s best to go into this novel with as little knowledge as possible so I stop here before I give too much away.
Exploring what it truly means to be human, Never Let Me Go is both enlightening and deeply heartbreaking. It isn’t a light read but an important one all the same. Besides Klara and the Sun it’s definitely my favourite Ishiguro.
Have you read Never Let Me Go? How did you like it? Let me know in the comment section below!