Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer renowned for his capacity to create beautifully controlled surfaces and to beautifully evoke the roiling emotions beneath them. Most famously, of course, the voice of the butler Stevens in The Remains of the Day is a triumph of nuance and subtle unreliability: Here is a speaker whose apparently mundane obsessions with the qualities of a great butler and the importance of the proper polishing of silver mask his inner torments. Indeed, beneath his stiff upper lip, Stevens has come in later years to question not only his choices but the foundation upon which they were based.
In subsequent novels, Ishiguro has taken this talent for surface restraint to new levels. In The Unconsoled and When We Were Orphans, he withheld not only certain superficial narrative satisfactions–a type of purposeful dramatic event–but also external elements, the frame or context that might ground his stories in a world we recognize as familiar and true. It’s as if he were playing a daring game, testing what could be removed from fiction without sacrificing its life force. Do we need to know where The Unconsoled takes place? Or what ails the town at its center? Do we need to know why Christopher Banks, the protagonist of When We Were Orphans, believes he will succeed in finding his lost parents in Shanghai, or why the expatriate community believes he can save them? Do we need to see exactly the line between story and fantasy, between what is fictionally “real” and a character’s imagined reality? What, exactly, constitutes a fiction’s vital organs?
The questions surrounding his latest, mesmerizing book, Never Let Me Go, would be formulated rather differently. Here, through the narration of a 31-year-old named Kathy H., we are presented with a hermetic, fully imagined reality of the recent past–one whose details are as precise, as simultaneously petty and deeply significant, as Stevens’s insufficiently polished fork or stray dustpan and brush–and yet it is a world almost wholly detached from the recent past as we know it. In other words, we are provided here with context, if only partially so, but it is context counter to fact. How, then, do we know our own reality? And what, indeed, might it be to see again and utterly askew what we thought we already knew?
The novelist Peter Carey has said that in writing Oscar and Lucinda he felt himself to be writing a science fiction of the past; in his new novel Ishiguro could be said to do the same for the present, marrying the narrative strategies of his earlier and later fictions. We are set down in a world at once familiar and unfamiliar, as in his enigmatic novels, like The Unconsoled; at the same time Never Let Me Go, in tenor, powerfully recalls The Remains of the Day. But the stakes for Kathy are dramatically higher even than for Stevens: He is concerned for his dignity and his fulfillment; she, for her very life.
We are told, a page before the story even begins, that we are in England in the late 1990s; but this could be a purely disarming strategy. (As a computer scientist recently pointed out to me, why should Internet users ever believe that we’ve entered a secure location just because a pop-up box assures us we have? To trust a few words on a screen, or page, smacks of a perilous credulity.) Before we begin reading, we have in hand, we feel, a comprehensive set of useful guidelines–the guidelines of our lived experience. Indeed, when Kathy informs us in the novel’s second sentence that she has been “a carer now for over eleven years,” we “naturally” assume she’s at work in Britain’s healthcare system, tending to the elderly or infirm. That this is an insufficient understanding is, within the paragraph, abundantly clear: The people for whom she cares are termed “donors,” and a passing reference to their “fourth donation” suggests that this is not a one-off bout of purposeful generosity on their part (a kidney for a cousin, bone marrow for an ailing child) but a full-blown career. Still, surrounded by so much that is familiar, by Kathy’s calm conversational tone (“Anyway, I’m not making any big claims for myself. I know carers, working now, who are just as good and don’t get half the credit. If you’re one of them, I can understand how you might get resentful”), we assume that in spite of our slight disorientation, we will soon know where we stand.