February 27, 2019
Ishiguro’s approach to his material is initially enthralling: canny and deft, as you’d expect from the author of The Remains of the Day—and in it, we see the same concern with unapproachable love, the separation that results from stratified social classes. What I admired most was how this novel made itself an adult, literary complement to the YA dystopian novels of its time: the retrospective narrator and the motif of wandering country roads help it explore the power dynamics between adolescents, but without the formulaic discovery-of-oppression-and-revolt trope that followed in the wake of Susan Collins’ trilogy. So, it’s an interesting subject for Ishiguro and an interesting approach.
Technically, I admired his use of the “what if” space that allows Kath to retrospectively enter other points of view without having to be too reflective about her own. I’ve been reading Stacey D’Erasmo’s The Art of Intimacy: The Space Between, which talks in its first chapter about the “subjunctive space” created by the imagination. This novel rests on Kath’s ability to fill in the spaces—to imagine—information that she was too young to process at the time. And once you start looking for subjunctive experiences in this novel, they’re everywhere: especially following ensemble scenes, when the dialogue casts doubt and bias on what was just said. The uncertainty of memory is in play throughout the novel’s narrative strategy, as well as the importance of imagining shared futures and the value of shared past experiences. The first half of the novel was a delight, especially after catching on to this technique.
Yet the novel misses some opportunities in a few areas later on, which is a shame. As we enter Part 2 of the novel (at about the halfway point), Kath slightly overuses her narrative authority to plant explicit cliffhangers at the ends of sections and chapters. This falls into such a pattern that it’s impossible not to see the struts behind the story structure. I feel that a writer of Ishiguro’s caliber could have found a way to avoid it, so perhaps it is intentional: Kath is, after all, a first-person narrator and we are subject to her limits. She is brought up to be human, but she is deliberately unsophisticated (e.g., think of a narrator like the one in Kent Haruf’s Plainsong). And after all, there are rewards for telling this story in her sharply delimited frame of reference, especially at the language level: the euphemism “completed” is the best example.
Less easy to justify, though, is the cloudy world-building, forced (and dialogue-heavy) climactic sequence, and Kath’s subsequent lack of a reaction. I wondered what “fifties” and “seventies” Miss Emily referred to: an alternative-history 1950s–1970s? Or are we in the twenty-first century? If the latter, why don’t the children eventually experience more technology? The bubble around Kath’s world remains so durable that it begins to strain our disbelief, given her relative freedom to drive all over the UK to support other donors (and encounter not just tech, but also regular people). Additionally, once we learn the backstory from Miss Emily, I couldn’t help wondering about the consequences of their humane movement’s failure; Kath has been a carer for 12 years, and a good one, owing in part to her excellent experience at Hailsham. But if the newer generation of clones is being raised in squalor (as we’re led to infer), then how does that affect the system’s whole carer-to-donor progression? Shouldn’t Kath have begun to see the evidence of childhood trauma and stunted upbringing in the newest generation of carers, who surely couldn’t be very good at caring for people? Questions like these were distracting because they make sense and could have produced an interesting layer in the novel—one, I assume, that Ishiguro didn’t want to take up lest it blot out the nuances of his primary intent.
Finally, I was curious why we never see more emotion, even indirect emotion, revealed after Kath gains a fuller understanding of the system. Tommy is the one who’s given the rage, and we have no reason to believe that Kath is projecting her own anger onto the recounting of Tommy’s tantrum on the drive home from Littlehampton. We see Tommy’s struggle to minimize and then dismiss his emotions, but Kath leaves no room for her own reaction. Ishiguro’s intent seems to be that we take Kath entirely at her word as a literal narrator, and if anything of her emotional life is projected onto the landscape, it’s through the images of desolation, marginalization, and sadness (via the stranded boat and then the final images of trash on the landscape). It’s not that this is ineffective or incredible, it just seems to avoid treating other material—other questions—that rise to the surface of the reader’s consciousness. The absence is partly intentional, I think, but partly something missing from the sauce.
Other readers give this book unqualified praise, and my pickiness is coming mostly from a place of striving for the fullest possible understanding of what can go right and wrong in speculative literary fiction. Analyzing this novel’s few deficiencies is helpful, but it shouldn’t detract from the fact that Never Let Me Go is a poignant, subtle, interesting, and important text in the literature.