Never Let Me Go is a story of conflict. It’s a story of hope and despair, isolation and belonging, the will to struggle in the face of terrifying odds; but, more than all that, it is a simple story of relationships and what it means to be human.
Kazuo Ishiguro tells the story of Kathy H and her two closest friends, Tommy and Ruth, through Kathy’s own flawed recollection. They grow up together at Hailsham, a secluded British boarding school that always seems distant from the nearest signs of society, and here their bonds are forged. What follows is the story of how they drift in and out of each other’s lives as they grow older, paired with a solemn reflection on the things that connect them despite their distance.
In the opening chapters, there is an immediate sense of uncertainty which persists throughout the book. Ishiguro is always in control of the narrative. The reader is never allowed to know any more than Ishiguro wishes at any time and he uses this to flood his writing with foreboding phrases and unexplained remarks.
Nothing ever felt safe about reading Never Let Me Go or, at least, nothing ever felt certain. However, one thing that never changed was the hope of a positive conclusion despite times when it seemed this hope was only left as a taunting reminder of what could have been. At these times, it felt like a cruel and unforgiving book but there is a subtle beauty amidst it all.
Introducing Kathy, Tommy and Ruth at such a young age really endears them to the reader. You watch as they go through petty and relatable childhood struggles but then you also see them grappling with larger, more terrifying ideas.
Very few people come and go at Hailsham and this distance to the rest of civilisation always suggests that something is slightly more sinister than it may seem. There is no denying the care and affection shown to the students by their teachers, or guardians, as they are known at Hailsham. They fill both the roles of teacher and carer and the dynamic between these two groups has always been difficult to read.
There is a sense that, despite the care they so obviously feel towards the children, the guardians are always keeping a somewhat wary distance and always conforming to some unwritten rule. However, this sense of unease is not specific to this situation. There are countless cases where the children talk about the things they know but these “truths” sometimes seem so alien to us. They are all certain that they have a singular purpose and know the correct way to live despite the obscurity that surrounds their futures.
This first section of the book is both charming and haunting in equal parts. It is a pure joy to watch the children grow closer and find strength in their connections to one another but there is always that suspicion that their futures are not as certain or will not be as happy as the children imagine.
It is hard to elaborate further without giving too much away about the plot; this is a book that benefits from an unprepared reader. However, I can say that once the students are released from their sheltered existence within the walls of Hailsham, they continue along their prescribed paths to a stage of more independent living and then on to their final roles as ‘carers’ and ‘donors’.
For much of the book, this is all Ishiguro reveals and, again, it reinforces that sense of foreboding. In these situations, it was always easier to focus on what was understandable and, with Never Let Me Go, that was always the human struggles of these innocent characters.
Kathy, Tommy and Ruth fight as people do. They are by no means perfect friends all of the time but there is always a sense of loyalty even in their arguments. They can only relate to each other as the rest of the world doesn’t seem to know anything of their upbringing at Hailsham or what it has prepared them or, in many cases, failed to prepare them for.
This is where the book shines. The power of Ishiguro’s writing is in how much he is able to make you care for his characters. Watching them drift apart and then back together as their heavily speculated future finally reveals itself, was both heart-breaking and joyful.
For me, everything about this book always comes back to that one word: humanity. There are moral questions throughout Never Let Me Go but these are the most human characters I have ever read. Watching them struggle, fighting for things that we all consider basic rights, displays a human instinct which had me willing them on despite their opposition and likelihood of failure.
Since finishing Never Let Me Go for the first time almost five years ago, I have felt that I left a tiny piece of myself between its pages. Something about the humanity displayed in Ishiguro’s characters and their resolve to continue their own private battles in an unforgiving world has left me turning to it for advice more often than I realise.
Never Let Me Go is, in my opinion, everything that a great book should be. It’s a warning of life’s terrifying potential and a story of beauty and darkness ceaselessly conflicting but, as the title suggests, it’s also a plea born from desperation. That one line, never let me go, will ring in your mind throughout the narrative. I think the biggest compliment I can offer is that it’s a book that did not become tedious under scrutiny in lessons at school; these lessons only strengthened the book’s place in my mind and the power it had, and continues to have, over my emotions.
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