Horror and Familiarity Go Hand-In-Hand: Review of Ishiguro’s "Never Let Me Go"

In A Nutshell

Simple, subtle, and insidious. The most horrifying parts are the ones that are the most familiar.

The Whole Enchilada

Never Let Me Go is a book I couldn’t stop reading, and one I’m not going to be able to stop thinking about for quite some time. On the surface it can almost come off as a simple love triangle, although the circumstances (revealed slowly over the course of the book) make the story so much more; and beyond the story itself, the moral and societal issues brought up in the book are hardly the kind of thing you can sweep under the rug after reading the last page. The story of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy is a centuries-old one: two girls, one boy, love, uncertainty and betrayal. On its own there is nothing particularly noteworthy about the triangle between these three young adults; it’s the dark secret that underlies their very existence which makes this story so compelling.

You see, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy aren’t just your average lovelorn teenagers; they each have an important and specific purpose which they absolutely cannot escape or deviate from. It is this purpose, what it means and how they gradually come to terms with it, which sets their love triangle apart from all others. Each of their decisions and reactions takes on much more weight and importance than you might otherwise find. It is the contrast of this simple and recognizable story set in such amongst such utterly disturbing circumstances that makes it so powerful, and so impossible for the reader to put down.

Ishiguro proves that he is a master storyteller with Never Let Me Go. It’s clear from the very first sentence that there is something not quite right about the world that our narrator Kathy H. belongs to, but Ishiguro (and Kathy) take their time revealing exactly what that disconnect is. This exquisite restraint is what keeps the reader going, what causes a frisson every few pages, and what makes the careful reader look closely at every seemingly innocent event, every mysterious character, and every curious choice of words.

One of the things that struck this careful reader most strongly by the end of the book was the way vocabulary is almost hijacked by those in power to keep the powerless from rebelling. There is nothing so effective as using a victim’s own language to induce pain, confusion, and submission. The book begins, for example, with this: “My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years… My donors have always tended to do much better than expected… hardly any of them have been classified as ‘agitated,’ even before fourth donation.” If all of this subversive and incomplete talk of “carers”, “donors” and eventually of “completing” doesn’t disturb you then there’s something wrong. Before the meaning had been revealed I shuddered every time I read the word “Completing;” once I knew for sure what it meant I had to hold back tears every time it cropped up in the story.

Never Let Me Go is both hard to read and too easy to read, all at the same time. It’s an extremely uncomfortable book that tells a story so important and compelling that it is impossible to put down.

Reading is a solitary experience, but contemplation of a book benefits from discussion and argument. For a slightly different take on this book check out the blog of my very well-read friend Denise: Let Sleeping Dragons Lie. If you have your own opinion or review to add to the conversation please comment below, or feel free to link to your own review.

3 thoughts on “Horror and Familiarity Go Hand-In-Hand: Review of Ishiguro’s "Never Let Me Go"

  1. Your "in a nutshell" sentence says it all!I was slightly disturbed while reading this one because you know what it's about, you just don't know how far the author will take it.

  2. The first time I read this I went into it with no prior knowledge; so the unusual use of language, the way small things were given an inordinate amount of importance, the way Kathy is just a bit too familiar with the reader–all of it came together to make me very uncomfortable. I rushed through the book to find out if/when it would end and what was going to happen. On second reading I took my time, didn't have that sense of urgency, but still felt disturbed as you say; but this time it was because I KNEW what it was about. Ishiguro is masterful!

  3. Thanks for the link, Jenni! I would like to warn your readers thought that I was not as thoughtful as you. My book review is full of spoilers, so anyone who is going to read the book might not want to read it yet. ;-)I hadn't thought of the use of vocabulary in the novel … and your view of it made me think a bit about Ishiguro's use of those words and how he changed them contextually to induce, as you said, pain, confusion and submission. I didn't really think much of it as I was reading, but I realized that was because it is common in science fiction/fantasy writing to change the meaning of commonplace words to jar the reader and remind them that this is happening in a different world from ours. Vonnegut, Dick, Asimov, Bradbury … they've all used this technique. It is very powerful and effective. Even though I didn't consciously think about it, it was certainly a key part of the overall experience. NLMG was certainly a well written novel, and I might eventually venture into Ishiguro's works in other genres. He certainly likes to "play the field," so to speak.I caught the end of the movie "Never Let Me Go" the other night. Have you seen it? I don't think it follows the novel exactly, but it seems to capture the overall emotion and portrait of society. Ishiguro was one of the producers.

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