About every five years, I introduce a book to my AP Literature curriculum that I’ve heard great things about but haven’t had the chance to read. By doing so, I place myself in my student’s position and can model how I process a book the first time I read it. This was that year, and the book was Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.
I wasn’t really a stranger to the plot. I’d seen the movie, which is remarkably faithful. Unfortunately, my knowledge from the movie colored and diminished some of my enjoyment of the book. It is part mystery, after all, and knowing the reveals meant I couldn’t enjoy the guessing. However, seeing how flustered some of my students got when only a few of their questions were answered, I realized that I didn’t suffer that same disappointment. I knew which questions would be left hanging.
Never Let Me Go is told from the perspective of a 31-year-old “carer” named Kathy. Her voice is casual and conversational. She has verbal ticks, like anyone who tells you stories for long enough. The narrative is a series of flashbacks as she relates her memories of childhood and adolescence to an unknown audience. She reminisces about her mostly idyllic childhood at a boarding school called Halisham and her friendships with Ruth and Tommy. But it is clear to the reader that something is wrong at Halisham and maybe with the students. They are different, though they don’t know precisely why. The mystery of the book is figuring this out–how the students are different and why Halisham is run like it is.
Except, of course, Kathy has many of the answers as a 31-year-old, but she reveals the secrets in a controlled way, to continue the tension and propulsion of the mystery. The control over those mysteries is so deliberate, Ishiguro manages to evoke within the reader the same reactions the students have when they learn a new secret–exactly like they had already known the answer. It is a way of controlling the students of Halisham, and the control is over the reader as well.
The mystery is sci-fi in nature, posing an alternate Britain after World War II. The hints at the social program surrounding the students are creepy and deeply thought-provoking. But they are big questions–questions of humanity and ethics, the sacrifices of the few for the betterment of the many. The costs of science and the brave new worlds it creates. Its ancestors are Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.
But to say this is a book about big questions is to lose track of the story at its heart: the relationship between Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy. It is the realism of their interactions as children and young adults and the heartbreak of the mistakes they make with each other that pulls the reader deep inside Ishiguro’s narrative. I recognized myself and my friends in these three–a crucial attachment to make the themes of the book hit home.
I highly recommend this book to just about anyone, really.