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.
What follows–Kathy’s reminiscences of her years at a boarding school called Hailsham, and of her minute altercations and reconciliations with friends, in particular with two of them named Ruth and Tommy–is, in the context of our known world and the real past, of an indescribable banality. Ishiguro captures brilliantly the local rules and rituals of his imaginary institution, the cliques and spats and tiny treasured moments; but this involves Kathy relaying to us in prolonged detail the incident of Ruth’s fancy pencil case, the disappearance of Kathy’s favorite cassette tape and so forth. For a good third of the novel, we relive these events as if trapped at the dinner table with our suddenly voluble adolescent children–that is to say, with a mixture of mild interest, concern and deep exasperation. But over these childish dramas hangs an ever-growing sense of menace. Kathy observes:
So you’re waiting, even if you don’t quite know it, waiting for the moment when you realize that you really are different to them; that there are people out there, like Madame, who don’t hate you or wish you any harm, but who nevertheless shudder at the very thought of you–of how you were brought into this world and why–and who dread the idea of your hand brushing against theirs…. It’s like walking past a mirror you’ve walked past every day of your life, and suddenly it shows you something else, something troubling and strange.
This is, indeed, the effect of Kathy’s narrative itself, as we learn what lies behind her urgent prattling: that she and her fellow students are, like others in similar institutions around the country, clones, created and raised to adulthood in order to become multiple organ donors. As one of their most outspoken teachers, or “guardians,” informs them, in response to their typical teenage fantasizing, “None of you will go to America, none of you will be film stars. And none of you will be working in supermarkets as I heard some of you planning the other day. Your lives are set out for you.”
In this new context, of course, the mirror reflects a different reality, and the squabbles and triumphs of children become the high points of their lives, become life itself. Not far beyond the gates of school, they are destined for donation and ultimately death, or “completion,” as it is delicately called. Just as Stevens has lived his adulthood entirely within the grounds of Darlington Hall (so much so that even a junket of a few days seems to flummox him), so too these people have lived entirely within Hailsham and The Cottages, a sort of halfway house where the older adolescents are sent to learn how to venture out into the world, engage with ordinary people and shop: “So we went to Woolworth’s, and immediately I felt much more cheerful. Even now, I like places like that: a large store with lots of aisles displaying bright plastic toys, greeting cards, loads of cosmetics, maybe even a photo booth.” They may be in England, but they are aliens in their country, a host of Frankenstein’s children. They are fed upon literary classics, encouraged to make art and write poetry; they are civilized into an apparently meaningful humanity; and for what?
As in Beckett, Ishiguro’s characters, in their detached world, show us a version of our own minute preoccupations and piddling distractions, and raise life’s largest questions for us all. Is this all there is? Must it end so soon? Why strive? Why persist? What is it all for? At least the triumvirate of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy seem eventually to find an answer. Though not original–after all, these are not, by any definition, original people–it is nevertheless compelling: love. In time-honored tradition, they cling passionately to the belief that love will set them free; and needless to say, in time-honored tradition, love fails to oblige.
There is great dignity in Kathy H., and in her friends. There is also, ultimately, a pained and painful resignation. Like Stevens and Miss Kenton, the housekeeper who might have been his lover and wife, the Hailsham students seem, for all their musing, not to ask the essential question: Does it have to be this way? Rather as in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, in which one might be forgiven for wondering just why the sisters cannot go to Moscow (as a friend of mine once insisted, they could surely get the train schedules, buy tickets and be off?), it is hard to understand fully why Kathy, Ruth and Tommy–or, for that matter, any of their cloned peers or acquaintances–don’t contemplate escape, don’t consider fleeing into the wider world–perhaps even to America.
This is a recurring element in Ishiguro’s fiction; and surely an indispensable aspect of his vision. As he would have it, we are all trapped, whether in institutions or by mores or in a fantasy logic or in the past. His characters cannot jump out the window, because they do not believe there is anything outside the window to jump into. Even though we’re told that Kathy lives in late-1990s England, in Never Let Me Go that place remains as flat as a stage set and as unreal, no possible Oz. This may be a radical and disturbing vision, of a world in which agency is so dramatically curtailed; but it is also an accurate rendition of the lives of so many, who are never granted the opportunity to imagine an alternative to the microcosm into which we have been born. Even when Kathy and Tommy seek out the powers that be to plead the case for their love, to beg a special dispensation, they do not dare to imagine any future to which a successful plea might entitle them; and that failure of imagination is perforce their huis clos.
If Ishiguro is a writer of uncommon restraint, he is also a writer who has increasingly made demands of his readers. Despite Kathy’s easy and engaging narrative voice, this is true, too, of Never Let Me Go: A reader’s patience and humility are required. Kathy H. is an ordinary young woman to whom circumstances have dealt an appalling fate; the ultimate emotional resonance of the book stems, at least in part, from that necessary ordinariness. And those who listen to her story will find themselves amply rewarded by this ambitious, peculiar and deeply affecting book.