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.