**Warning – here be spoilers!**
I read Never Let Me Go last week, sadly in preparation for the film. I really prefer to have read the book before I know anything about a film as it makes it impossible to picture anyone else in the roles you know about. With this, I actually don’t know which one Carey Mulligan is, although it’s pretty obvious who Andrew Garfield plays.
So, to go back to the beginning – Never Let Me Go is the sixth novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, UEA Creative Writing alumni, which makes him East Anglian, as far as we’re concerned. It has been translated to the big screen and stars Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield as three friends who all attend/ed the same Kent-ish boarding school. From the trailer, it looks like a triangular romance involving Merchant Ivory standards of longing looks and pertinent sighs next to the window. Except. If you watch it again, there’s something off about it, something not quite right. The tone is slightly menacing and definitely mysterious.
Kathy is the narrator throughout the novel, and you learn fairly early on that her friends Tommy and Ruth are no longer around. The whole tone is nostalgic as Kathy recalls the events in their lives that led to the actions and situations that happened. This is all told without a lot of emotion as the language Kathy uses is oddly flat. As the story unfolds there are certain trigger words that Ishiguro, through Kathy, uses. These include ‘carer’, ‘complete’ and ‘donor’. Their reason for being alive is only spelled out once in the book, by a teacher they call guardians – they are clones, bred purely as living organs to be donated when real people need them. They way this incident is told in the novel indicates that Kathy doesn’t really like to think about the reality – something she alludes to a number of times before and after. We as the readers are able to piece together what happens – I won’t tell you everything but the donations are grotesque. Most donors are expected to make up to nine donations before ‘completing’. Kathy talks later about how completing is not dying – you’re treated as if you are dead but you ‘re still aware of the world around you, kept alive by machines and unable to communicate.
The reveal of the sci-fi element of the story is done beautifully, and would have been shocking if Glamour hadn’t have spoiled it in their three line review (thanks very much, Glamour). I find it really interesting that the trailer is deliberately misleading, so that if you weren’t watching you would think it was almost a period drama about heaving bosoms and marriages when in reality it encourages readers/viewers to ask existential questions around the ethics of growing people as skin-bags or the existence of souls.
The narration itself lends itself to the overall idea of whether Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are human or not. While re-living highly emotional incidents in her life, there’s no real sense of how Kathy felt while this was happening. It’s very factual, and the focus point becomes what she’s not saying –the absences. Tommy and Kathy clearly love each other but it is only talked about when they are adults and Ruth is dying from her first donation. Even then, even when they finally get together she is curiously detached, apart from the odd comment. It could be argued that there are some people who do that anyway – removing yourself from the scene stops old wounds being re-opened. This raises the question of – is Kathy’s narration cold because she is alone and afraid to venture into that territory again, or is it because she’s not a ‘real’ person?
Ishiguro is very good at portraying characters with stiff upper lips on the outside, but with a river of feelings just under the surface. Remains of the Day, his 1989 novel which was adapted into a Merchant Ivory film, examines the relationship between a butler and housekeeper, employed in a large house. Comparisons can be drawn between the two novels, as Tommy and Kathy are kept apart by environment and even their own friends. Some may find this to be flat or difficult to get involved with on a deeper level, but as I mentioned before, it’s not what the narrator says that’s important but more what he or she does not say.
If there was one thing to criticise, it would be that there are too many peripheral characters within the story. There are dozens of boys and girls at Hailsham, the boarding school as well as at the half-way house they move to when they graduate. This makes it difficult to place people or link them to incidents in Kathy’s school life when she encounters them later. On the other hand, they are normally referred to in context and it also makes for satisfying re-reads as more layers of the story is revealed.
I’m looking forward to re-reading this, even though I only finished it a couple of days ago. It’s a book that has left me thinking about this not too distant future alternate reality. I’m also looking forward to seeing the film, largely because I like the leads but also because a lot of it was filmed in Norfolk, where they journey to in the novel. Ishiguro has clearly experienced the pull that East Anglia has on all those who live here.