Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is a powerful novel about identity and belonging, the struggle to find a place in a bleak and hostile society and, underneath all of the turmoil, the things which offer us the brightest hope. Better examples of an author’s ability to create a sense of isolation and dread in a protagonist must be few and far between. Ishiguro deals with a world much like our own, but with one significant difference that changes our view of everything.
This difference is not at first obvious, but brings to light a burdening load of moral questions as it is revealed. Then, somewhere in the obscurity and academic debate of these questions, the protagonist, Kathy H, and others like her, find themselves caught and suspended in uncertainty.
I first read this novel as part of my A-Level English Literature course but have thought of it often since and the longer it sits, the more relevant it seems to become. It now stands as my favourite book simply because of its ability to evoke emotion even if the events that take place seem relatively mundane.
As a student, this book seems particularly relevant – Kathy is struggling to grow up and understand how she fits into the world all throughout the book
At its core, Never Let Me Go, is the story of Kathy H at various stages in her life – first as a student at Hailsham as a child, then as she progresses along her journey from carer to donor. Little more is revealed than this for much of the book and Ishiguro often seems to toy with the reader by dropping hints in misunderstood or confusing sentences. It creates an instant sense of foreboding that lingers and grows as the plot progresses.
As a student, this book seems particularly relevant. Kathy is struggling to grow up and understand how she fits into the world all throughout the book. There’s a sense of calm in her narration which can seem like submissive acceptance, but it is never clear what this might be an acceptance of.
At Hailsham, Ishiguro skews the stereotypical, romanticised boarding school setting to create something much more sinister, despite the care and affection that exists between students and teachers. He uses the bonds as well as the petty squabbles between school children as a foundation. The two most prominent figures in Kathy’s life are Ruth and Tommy, fellow students who are equally as lost and confused by all of the customs and jargon that are commonplace at Hailsham as she is.
It becomes a very cruel book and it can be easy to lose sight of the positives at times, but then I feel that this is where it shines most prominently
They eventually move on from their sheltered existence within the fences of Hailsham and the focus of the novel shifts. So often there is a conflict between the students’ struggles to understand the world they are being prepared for and their struggles to hold onto one another amidst it all.
It is a story of loyalty and betrayal, hope and despair, and of a life in service of a single purpose. It is easy not to know what to believe at times. Kathy H is narrating the story, but confesses to sometimes remembering imperfectly and it is clear throughout the novel that Ishiguro is always leaving doors open. Most obviously, there is always hope for a glittering Hollywood ending but a sense that nothing is certain.
It becomes a very cruel book and it can be easy to lose sight of the positives at times, but then I feel that this is where it shines most prominently. Living and working as a student can often be uncertain, perhaps with not quite the same consequences as in Never Let Me Go, but terrifying nonetheless. Ishiguro takes his protagonist, and seems to nurture her only to abandon her.
Despite the certainty that the students of Hailsham have in their purpose in life, it leads to so much uncertainty, and this uncertainty and their isolation are far too relevant not to have an impact on a reader. Ishiguro’s characters are so fragile and distinctly human. There are no heroes or villains as such, just complicated, confused children who grow up without ever really knowing who they are. It’s a tragic story but hope drives the plot towards its conclusion.
Never Let Me Go remains in my mind as I ponder day to day questions. Something in its depiction of growing up has resonated with me throughout these difficult years of studying while also learning to live independently. It is a true example of the power of literature and the power of simple stories. This is definitely a book that I feel every student should read as they face the confusion in their own paths and the fear of a wrong choice. It brings into perspective what is truly important in life and highlights the challenges that may only be bumps along the road.