I love Kazuo Ishiguro. He's an outstanding writer. The Remains of the Day is perhaps the greatest novel about unrequited love ever written in the English language. But even Ishiguro is a master at only a few themes. Simply put, his best works are about characters who are unable to break free from their predestined paths. They can be constricted by Victorian manners (such are the protagonists in Remains of the Day), or they are constricted by an inescapable understanding that they will will live very short lives (as the protagonists in Never Let Me Go). The idea to break free and escape never occurs to any of these charaters in Ishiguro's finest works. England might as well be a maximum security prison - a giant gray Alcatraz. And no matter what, none of his characters dare lose their dignity.
Never Let Me Go is not science fiction, nor is it a dystopia novel (like 1984). The best way I can put it is that it is a brilliant short story or novella, expanded to novel length if for no other reason than to let the reader soak-in the sterile, gray environments the protagonists inhabit. The novel is written as a free form memoir, with a terribly irritating literary device. The narrator, Kathy H., has a habit of getting ahead of herself, telling us of a crucial turning point or event, but forces herself to backtrack in order to set-up the next major point (usually expressed as "I'll return to that later" or "more on that later"). And when she does divulge the details of this major turning point, it is usually a creepy, awkward conversation between her and one of her two closest friends, Tommy or Ruth. It becomes quite clear that these characters have a radically isolated and skewed worldview. For them (or at least Kathy H.) major events are not graduations, or moving to a new residence, or even death. No, major events are spilling secrets and making the occasional error of saying too much or being too harsh towards one's somewhat distant friend. In other words, they are totally old school British schoolchildren in a bubble. These schoolchildren inhabit an alternate England - one that has advanced science far greater than the real postwar UK.
Never Let Me Go has scenes from this alternate England that you may never forget. The empty rural roads and service stations where Kathy H. finds peace driving her car. The perpetually gray skies. The refuse and trash collecting in the trees and barbed wire in a field somewhere in the east. The casual, passionless relationship the characters have with sex and death. The stiff upper lip attitude of wanting to make it to one's fourth 'donation'. It really is a brilliant work if you accept the argument that it is a dystopian story that avoids going into any details of the dystopia.
In other words, this is not Children of Men. The Europe in this novel might be in the midst of a serious public health crisis, but Never Let Me Go neither hints at one nor explains what it might be. Or Europe might be so prosperous, so technologically advanced, that the creation of these children might have seemed as natural as any advancement in a First World society. Ishiguro gives nothing away, expect for a key line about how science advanced so quickly after 1946 that there 'was no time' to consider the morality or logic of those advancements. In other words, England had become a well mannered monster. By 1996, England was consuming living, breathing, beautiful children as easily as stocks were traded on the FTSE. These children will be throughly educated, grow up, experience two years of independent, sexually liberated life, and then work to fulfill their predetermined destinies. And this England, as you might expect, seems quietly proud of that achievement, despite having 'no time' to ponder the consequences. Because, I suspect, more important things in English society must be maintained. There are cricket matches and afternoon tea parties to attend, after all. Carry on, you English. I am certain Ishiguro is attracted to that theme given the similarities to 20th century Japan's adherence to honor, dignity, and constrained mannerisms.
That alone is highly disturbing and original. And while I suspect Ishiguro was inspired by Dolly the Sheep in 1996, others with more sinister agendas have already looked to this novel for ideological ammunition. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research and abortion see parallels in this novel. They see how a society, with good intentions of advancing health and science, can destroy perfectly good lives. The difference they cannot escape, however, is that the children in this novel are not in a lab or in a uterus. But I am just rubbed the wrong way when I see 'Antis' flocking to a book by a secular British man as a source for their petty arguments.
But as Kathy H. might say, let me return to what I was saying about the novel itself.
I feel like such a picky reader when I complain that this could have been a novella or short story. As great and elegant a writer as Ishiguro is, even he has no serious justification for the length of this work. There is much creepiness and some suspense, but no tension. Rather it is a largely atmospheric work. At least the book gives us two amazing sequences: the road trip to Norfolk, and Tommy's moment of rebellion and passion (which may very well reflect the frustration of many readers of this book). Even a quiet, introverted student like Tommy has to let it all out when he (and we) discover that he has been told so much and at the same time, so very little.
But there is a glimmer of hope - the 2010 movie directed by Mark Romanek. Not only will the story line be tighter, it might play better in the medium of cinema, despite offering no answers as to what happened to this alternate world.
And of course, that is Ishiguro's point. This novel is intended to make us think about our real world and our lives. For succeeding at that, I give him tons of credit. For reprising his themes of people locked in their manners, bubbles, and fates, I also bestow him much credit. But for stretching it to 287 pages, I feel I must deduct stars.