Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is kind of a weird book.  Not much happens, and a few days after finishing it, I'm not even sure how it ended.  I was kind of hoping I'd be able to count this as a mystery for the RIP Challenge, but I'm not even sure if this could be considered a mystery or a thriller.

I decided to read this book after I was talking to Amanda about going to see the movie adaptation.  (If you don't know Amanda, she's the author of the Zen Leaf, and is the Queen of Dystopian Fiction.) Of course since we are in the Flyover Zone, the movie  doesn't open here until October 1.  Sigh.  But I digress.  Amanda strongly recommended that I read the book first and avoid the trailer like the plague, since it basically gives away the whole plot.  But I realized after finishing this book, that there really is very little plot.  There are only three main characters, and if I try to describe the plot, I'll pretty much give away the whole thing.  Like the trailer.

I'll try to give some background without spoiling it too much.  It's set in the 1990s in Britain, and it's told in the first person by a young woman named Kathy who is a Carer.  For what, or for whom?  It's mysterious, but eventually revealed, though I don't want to give it away.  Most of the action in this book is told in flashback about Kathy and two of her friends, Ruth and Tommy, growing up at a special boarding school called Hailsham, which I keep mentally confusing with Miss Havisham from Great Expectations.  Perhaps this is not a coincidence?

These youths have spent their whole lives at this school, because they are being prepared for Something Special.  Unfortunately, when I put the book on hold at the library, I happened to glance at the bottom of the screen and the book's biggest secret was inadvertently revealed by the library's subject headings (which is a new phenomenon for fiction; you won't find it nearly as often with older books).  Curse you, Library of Congress subject headings!  And this is not the first book the OPAC has spoiled for me.  I guess I need to be more careful about my library catalog surfing.

Well, these secrets are revealed, of course, but there isn't nearly as much buildup or tension as I would have expected.  This is the second book I've read by Ishiguro, and though the subject matter is quite different than in The Remains of the Day, they are similar in that they are both Literary Fiction in Which Not Much Happens.   A lot of the book's action is consumed with the interaction between Kathy and her frenemy Ruth, such as "who said what to whom??" and "how they reacted" and "what does it mean???"  I found the minutia of this exhausting, like high school, but three times worse.  I suppose that's possible, since these youngsters have lived their entire lives at this school and that's all they know.  It was still interesting, but I was hoping for a little something more.  And I still can't remember the ending.


  1. Okay. So first, I dont think knowing the plot in advance actually spoils the book. I'd just watched a movie about the same topic, so I knew within five pages what was going on and infact when I reviewed the book, I didn't realize that part was meant to be a spoiler and I included it in my synopsis. I read the book without there being any mystery or suspense at all.

    Second, when I got done with this book initially, I shrugged and said, "yeah this was better than my first try with Ishiguro, but still just meh." I gave it a 3-star rating on Goodreads and thought I'd forget about it. Fast forward six months. I was STILL thinking about this book. Somehow it worked its way inside me and stuck around. I would literally find myself thinking about different aspects and scenes on a daily basis, for months and months. I realized I really loved the book, it just took some time to work through that. Rating changed to 5, I bought a copy of the book, and I've held it close as one of my favorites ever since.

    It's now been about 1.5 years since I read it, and I still think about it quite frequently. Most people I know who love this said a similar thing happened to them, that they were just meh after reading but within six months they loved it. I wonder if that's going to happen to you now. It'll be interesting to see.

  2. This was a different book. The IDEA of it was almost better than the execution of it. I'm curious to see the movie because I think it might actually work better than the book. I felt like most of the story was happening "off the page" in the reader's imagination instead of on the page (if that makes sense).

  3. I actually just borrowed this book from the library yesterday, but after reading your review I'm not sure if it sounds like something I'm going to enjoy. I'm still looking forward to reading it, though. And luckily I've managed to avoid any spoilers!

  4. I knew what the school wa and what the characters were before I read it (someone on TV was talking about it and gave everything away) but it still didnt take away anything for me and I still loved the book. I think the books about coming to terms with impending natural life span. It doesnt matter how great you are or how much you love someone, when your times up, its up.

  5. I listened to this a couple of years ago and had pretty much the same reaction. The reader had a very detached, almost dreamlike quality to her voice that worked well, but I still couldn't say this was much more than an average book. I will see the movie though.

    Have also read When We Were Orphans, but didn't like that much either. Maybe Ishiguro is just not for me...

  6. I emphatically do not like literary fiction where not much happens, but I really liked this one. And Remains of the Day. I think Ishiguro is good at building up to a reveal in such a way that knowing what the reveal is going to be doesn't spoil it, because the way he builds to it makes it inevitable anyway.

  7. Amanda -- interesting. I do find that it's still sticking with me. I was just kind of frustrated with the characters and their apparent complacency about the situation.

    Jenners -- I still want to see the movie. And I'm really frustrated because it still hasn't opened here! It was supposed to open last weekend and no word yet. Very annoying!

    Helen -- you might really enjoy it. I did like it, I was just frustrated by the ending. I think I'm going to recommend it for my IRL book group, I'd love to discuss this with them.

    Jessica -- I hadn't thought of it that way. I knew there was probably a deeper meaning that I just didn't get -- I'm so bad at picking out allegories and symbolism and so on. Maybe if I'd been an English major I would have gotten better at it.

    JoAnn -- I tried When We Were Orphans years ago, when it first came out, but couldn't get into it. I may try again.

    Jenny -- I'm going to have to go back and watch Remains of the Day again -- I thought it was a great adaptation.

  8. My reaction to Ishiguro was very similar to Amanda's. I tend to not think much about the book at the time of reading. But somehow, it stands apart from all books. I think I will remember this for a long, long time.


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