Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Narrator, narrator, narrator. What a powerful creature you are.

On Tuesday evening, I started reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and then I finished it up on Wednesday afternoon. It’s a rare treat to focus on a book in what feels like essentially one sitting. This kind of intensive reading exaggerates the feeling I get of having completely exited my own reality and gone visiting another. And the smooth, unwavering quality of Never Let Me Go’s narrator Karen kept me firmly within the confines of the story.

I don’t want to go into too many details about the actual story of Never Let Me Go because I think it would spoil the fun of reading the book for those who don’t know anything about it. Suffice it to say the novel presents an alternate version of contemporary reality where certain scientific decisions require a new kind of social segregation. I’ve heard the novel labeled science fiction and I suppose that might be true, but I think it’s really beside the point. The point for me is the writing, combined with the novel’s careful exploration of Ishiguro’s idea.

I want to focus on the narrator. I was dubious of Ishiguro’s handling of Karen at first. I wanted her to have a different kind of voice – less explanatory, less hesitant, less flat. I felt like I wasn’t in good hands and that the way she told the story needed to be cleaned up or edited or smoothed somehow. I was worried it might be a case of a very successful writer not being held to certain standards anymore, which is something I do think happens as editors become less certain whether they can criticize or offer changes. And I held tight to that criticism for nearly a third of the book until it slowly dawned on me that Ishiguro was doing this on purpose and for a very good reason.

From the very beginning, Karen’s overall tone is one of jaded resignation. And it was driving me insane. I couldn’t detect the level of emotion I thought she should have. Nor could I understand why she felt compelled to do so much over-explaining. Until the details of Ishiguro’s frightening world started coming into clearer focus and then it all made sense. Especially when we remember that Karen begins her story at the end, when she’s eight months from leaving her job and taking on her “real” role in society, when what she has to tell us has already happened. It’s only when we get to the end, that it makes sense why she has the tone of voice she has. She’s worse than resigned. That’s the whole point.

But the point of letting this kind of narrator tell her story (something I think most writing classes or instructors would tell you to avoid like the plague because in essence she is lifeless) is where I think Ishiguro made a clever decision. Her tone of voice is specifically calculated for who she is. This sounds silly and maybe what I’m saying won’t make sense unless you’ve read the book. But she isn’t just telling her story – she IS the story. And her voice, her resignation, her understanding of herself at the end, becomes the greatest piece of evidence of the novel’s tragedy.

And Ishiguro gives us everything we really need to know about her right on page one. Pretty damn clever.

8 Responses to “Reading Writer – Never Let Me Go cont.”

  1. Stephen

    I haven’t read this (although it’s on the list). One of my favourite novels where I’m very much aware of the narrator (and in this case a sometimes unreliable one) is “The Remains of the Day”. I really became immersed in the voice of Stevens. A foolish man with a wasted life – but a brilliant narrator nevertheless.

  2. Verbivore at The Reading Writer

    Stephen – I’ve only read one other Ishiguro, “An Artist of the Floating World” and I’ve been meaning to read “Remains of the Day” for ages. I’ve heard a lot about that particular narrator and I’d love to sort him out for myself.

  3. kirstenjane

    I was impressed by Ishiguro’s use of narrative voice too! In fact you’ve prompted me to reread Never Let Me Go – as I raced through it as well – that pervading sense of Karen coming to understand her tragic destiny has lingered many months later. Now to consider how he does it!Really enjoy both your blogs – your insights are always thought provoking – “writers as mirrors” has sent me off in many reading directions, though I keep coming back to your superb line…Good writers capture the play between the light and darkness of reflection.

  4. Verbivore at The Reading Writer

    Kristin – thanks so much for leaving a comment and for your kind thoughts. Reading Ishiguro was an interesting experience and now I’ve gotten my dusty copy of An Artist of the Floating World out. I’m curious if he always writes in the first person…I’d love to hear your thoughts if you do re-read it!

  5. Gloria, Writer Reading

    I wonder if only an established writer could get away with that approach to narration, whether an editor reading such a narrative voice would just reject the manuscript without waiting to get to the end where it puts it in perspective.

  6. Verbivore at The Reading Writer

    Gloria – I think you are probably pretty right on. It would be very hard for an unestablished writer to pull something like that off. We’re willing to give Ishiguro the benefit of the doubt.

  7. Eva

    I agree-Ishiguro’s complete control over the narrative voice is the main reason why I love him! And I read this in one sitting as well. 🙂

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