Book Review: Never Let Me Go

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Most students are told they are “special.” But at Hailsham boarding school, it’s uniquely true.

“Never Let Me Go,” written by Japan-born Kazuo Ishiguro, was called the best novel of 2005 by TIME magazine, and in 2010 Fox Searchlight Pictures turned it into a feature film. Born in Japan in 1954, Ishiguro immigrated to England with his parents when he was a boy. His superb description of Hailsham life from the students’ point of view was undoubtedly wrought by his own experience in a British boarding school. Each of his novels are written in the first person, and “Never Let Me Go” follows suit.

The novel’s narrator, the now 31-year-old Kathy H., writes retrospectively about her experience at Hailsham, a boarding school in East Sussex, England. It becomes clear from the opening pages that it’s an unusual sort of place. Kathy writes that the students somehow knew they were different, and the teachers (called “guardians”), though they seem to genuinely care about their students, are evasive when the children ask about their future. Kathy and her two friends, Tommy and Ruth, live the typical structured lives of any boarding school students — replete with the gossip, rumor-mongering, cliques and sexual exploration of normal adolescence. They gradually realize their purpose: As “special” children, they are to steadily “donate” until they, as Kathy puts it, “complete.” The whole of the book is written with enigmatic language, and things are only stated plainly a handful of times before the novel’s harrowing climax.

As the story unfolds, the three friends try to live meaningful lives — with the ominous inevitability of their fate creeping slowly closer. We already know how this is all going to end, of course, even if we don’t yet know the details. The book’s language is coated with wistful sadness — though certainly not of the sentimental kind — as Kathy looks back at her Hailsham days and her life thereafter. She has no interest, however, in re-living her story; only telling it.

Because the plot is simple and un-exciting, Ishiguro relies on robust characterization and deft prose to make the story work. The effect of the novel is not unlike that of the superb 2008 film “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” — the reader feels a sort of emptiness and retrospective regret at the ephemerality of life and love.

“The fact is, yes we will all fade away and die,” Ishiguro said in a 2005 interview with NPR, “but people can find the energy to create little pockets of happiness while we’re here.”

It has been written that the fundamental question at the heart of this book is “What does is mean to be human?” This is certainly true. But the answer isn’t necessarily” having a soul” or “loving another” or “wishing for something just beyond our grasp” — though each of these has an important part to play in the narrative. No — the best answer is death. We all die. And insofar as we sense its irresistible presence, we experience the harshness and urgency of human life.

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