Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

There are times I wish I knew a lot more about sociology or psychology, when I wish I knew more about what we’ve discovered in terms of human emotional and behavioral development, for example, or how our psycho-social needs shape our transformation into functional members of society. I have some basic assumptions about social conditioning but nothing in depth. Nothing I’m definite about or feel confident in adopting as a theory. 

However, this seems to be what Kazuo Ishiguro is exploring in his novel Never Let Me Go. What is the emotional or intellectual essence of being human? The fictional construct he’s come up with to explore this idea is a good one – at least it struck me as well-suited to his purpose. I don’t want to give too much away, however, because I think the experience of reading this particular novel is a lot more interesting if you know nothing about the story at all. A lot of the tension for me came about through my labored understanding of what exactly was going on.  

In the most basic terms, the novel concerns a trio of individuals who have grown up together. The story centers on their coming-of-age, as it were, and their understanding of their role in a larger society. That sounds all rather ordinary, doesn’t it? But it’s not at all. I’ll recycle a line from my other post on Never Let Me Go, in an attempt to explain without giving too much away – the society they’re meant to live in, because of certain scientific discoveries, requires a strict and terrifying kind of social segregation. And our trio is on the wrong side. 

What comes out of Ishiguro’s construct is an attempt to locate the soul. Maybe that seems rather lofty, but I do think that’s what he’s getting at. Do we have a soul because all human beings necessarily have a soul, or do we learn what having a soul means and therefore have one? And what if, finally, it actually doesn’t matter whether we have a soul? Of all the novel’s questions, this one struck me as the most frightening. 

I wrote above that a lot of the novel’s tension comes through the reader’s slow understanding of the details of Ishiguro’s fictional world – we keep imagining the worst and waiting for some kind of confirmation or denial. But there’s something else in terms of reader-narrator tension: as the story progresses, the narrator entertains similar questions about the soul and free will as the reader does and the reader keeps waiting for the moment when the narrator might hazard a realization. But it slowly becomes apparent that everything about the narrator’s life precludes her from being able to form the questions in the same way as the reader. To me, that fundamental difference is Ishiguro’s attempt at answering his own question. 

I’ll definitely be adding more Ishiguro to my mountain of books to be read someday. Several years ago I read An Artist of the Floating World and if I remember correctly it has a similar aesthetic – disturbing but quiet. Thoughtful but mildly strange.  

I’m switching gears somewhat for the weekend and finishing up Rosy Thornton’s intricate Hearts and Minds. And I hope to settle down and read Nadine Gordimer’s fourth (and very short) novel The Late Bourgeois World. Other than that I will see what leaps off the shelf! 

Also, before I forget – Victoria from Eve’s Alexandria has put together an informative and witty post about the Orange Prize long list. Some of these look really interesting.  

21 Responses to “Kazuo Ishiguro – Never Let Me Go”

  1. jeane

    I really like how you describe what the book is about without revealing the plot. The obscurity of the reader trying to discover what is going on echoes the ignorance of the narrator herself- although she can never come to see as much or as clearly as the reader does. Excellent!

  2. chartroose

    Ooh, I’m going to have to move this closer to the top of my TBR list! It sounds like my kind of novel.

    BTW, I’m interlibrary loaning the anthology that has “Sonny’s Blues” in it. Thank you for the recommendation and the info!

  3. びっくり

    I’m sure it must be a good read. Remains of the Day was a gripping read. I can’t imagine him writing something that wasn’t intriguing.

  4. Care

    This author has now officially been added to my list. You have a great writing style… Thank you. Have you read Unbearable Lightness of Being? lots of philosophy and the author’s style was most interesting in how he weaved his thoughts as overplay on what his characters were doing, why they did it, etc.

  5. Dorothy W.

    I love Ishiguro. I knew the basic story before I picked it up, so I don’t know what it would have been like to struggle to figure it as I went along, but I’m sure that’s a better way to experience the book. Your discoveries mirror the characters’ discoveries, in a way, and it becomes more horrifying.

  6. Litlove

    I’ve been meaning for ages to read this but have somehow never got around to actually picking it up – I can see that I must! Wonderful review, as ever, verbivore!

  7. Deborah

    Well this is intriguing. You write that there is a fundamental difference between the way the reader and narrator are able to form questions about soul and free will; and also that Ishiguro’s own answers or attempts at answers lie in that difference (or maybe in the gap?) between. Not having read this novel (yet) I want to ask how you think Ishiguro answers the question you found most frightening…”what if, finally, it actually doesn’t matter whether we have a soul?”

  8. jeane

    Congrats, Verbivore! You won the book giveaway for The Artist by Norman Garbo. Email me your address and I’ll mail it this week!

  9. verbivore

    Jeane – Well, I’m glad it worked because I was worried that I’d just made the whole thing very confusing. Have you read this one? (And thanks for the book, will be emailing you soon!)

    Chartroose – If you do read it, I’d love to hear what you think. It was a fascinating reading experience. And I hope you like Sonny’s Blues!

    Bikkuri – I think I will get Remains of the Day from the library soon. I’d really like to read him again right away!

    Care – I love Milan Kundera. I’ve read almost everything of his and you’re so right, he has such a unique style, very layered. Its interesting how he puts himself into the books so much. I should reread Unbearable Lightness of Being sometime soon. I reread The Book of Laughter and Forgetting not too long ago but its been a while for the other.

  10. verbivore

    Dorothy – yes, it was so scary really to be just as confused as the characters and then start to understand things. What was worse was the moment that the reader understood more than the characters, that was just devastating really.

    Litlove – I’d love to know what you think if you do get around to giving this one a try. He has such an interesting style, kind of frustrating but I do think it pays off.

    Deborah – such a good question. I think Ishiguro’s point is that whether we have one or not isn’t necessarily the point. If it doesn’t matter anymore for a certain segment of society then we’ve failed as humans, as a society. Its a huge tragedy. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the book when you do read it. A great one for discussion in fact, I should recommend it to my book group here!

  11. びっくり

    Tell me when you get to the part about the snot drip. His writing there still sticks with me after all these years. I don’t know how long he was living in England at the time he wrote “Remains”, but his English understatement was perfect. I would not have guessed it was written by a Japanese man.

    I have to stop reading all these book-based blogs. I want to order up all his works right away and read them, but of course I don’t have time for that. 🙂

  12. Trish

    I recently read The Remains of the Day, and quiet is the perfect word to describe it. I have Never let Me Go on the shelf and your review makes me very curious to read it. Thanks for the insight.

  13. verbivore

    びっくり – now I’m terribly intrigued – snot drip? やだ!I’ve also always wanted to do more checking on Ishiguro, because his style strikes me as quite Japanese but I think he’s an anglophone through and through. A quick jump to Wikipedia and I learn that he was born in Nagasaki but moved to England when he was six. I think its fascinating he’s retained so much of the Japanese aesthetic, makes me wonder if its conscious.

    Trish – I’m definitely going to read Remains of the Day soon!

  14. Stefanie

    I really liked this book. It seems to be one that you either like or you don’t. I found it compelling and interesting and so very sad.

  15. verbivore

    Stefanie – I couldn’t agree more. I started the book, thought I wouldn’t like it and then couldn’t put it down. Very well done, I thought.

  16. びっくり

    Funny that you both had that experience. Way back when I read “Remains”, I read the first half of the first chapter and put the book down. Partly this happened because I was busy, but mostly because I found it a difficult read. After the second or third time, I had adjusted to his style and chewed straight through to the end. I think his combination of British and Japanese sense made the style unique, but once adjusted to it, I found this uniqueness to be superior.

    His writing is not alone in causing me the false starts: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek required at least six attempts to get through the first chapter. In her case, I think it was because she packed such intense detail into each paragraph that it was overwhelming. I read that book slowly, but once I got to the second chapter there was no stopping. After all, I am all about observation; and that book is almost observations about observation.

  17. びっくり

    My friend Seaflower loaned me Never Let Me Go today. I will read it. I read some general commentary on Ishiguro today and they tied both this book and Remains to the Japanese “Mono no Aware” concept. It will be interesting to find out how this compares. I may have to re-read Remains, since it was almost 20 years ago now. However, I will hunt you down if you turn me back into a book-aholic. 🙂

  18. verbivore

    びっくり – I’ve got to get my hands on Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Been meaning to read that one for ages.
    Also, back to Remains, I like your comment about a combination of Japanese and British style, that strikes me as very true. So does your second idea of “mono no aware” – hmm, much to think about it.
    Aha – your catching on to my secret plan…one person at a time and soon the whole world will be reading nonstop 🙂

  19. びっくり

    Yes. Pilgrim is a great read. I love details and that book is nothing if not detailed. She brings up interesting points like: once we learn how to see something we see it everywhere. I recently learned how to see Japanese fire hydrants (which are hidden underground) and now I walk around thinking, “There’s a hydrant… there’s another hydrant…” My calligraphy study is more about learning to see than it is about learning to write. We must perceive something before we can take it down on the page.

    You may be the source of my undoing. I discussed Ishiguro in my evening class. After telling them I plan to read Never Let Me Go and then re-read The Remains of the Day, my feelings from my first read through dawned on me during our discussion of why mono no aware might apply. Furthermore, I realized that my feelings would be intensified by being almost 20 years older and more similar to the main character. I wanted to explain why this might destroy me, but realized it would spoil the story: it will have to wait until you’ve read the book.

    Whether it destroys me or saves me, thanks for stimulating my desire to read. I am in your debt. m(_ _)m

  20. びっくり

    For some reason this appeared as a recent post on your blog today… that seems odd, but here’s a comment.

    I had trouble at the beginning as well, but I think my difficulty understanding was much more simple. The fact that the story takes place in the past, but it is not actually our past escaped me for a bit. I think this is one of the reasons it gets labeled as SF.

    The sociological and human issues were indeed fascinating throughout.

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