When I say that a book is a “favorite” of mine, what I mean is that I have read it multiple times, always enjoying it as much or even more than the previous time, and I know that I will read it again in the future. Each time I read it I find something fresh about it, something new to chew on, something about the story or characters or writing that not only gives me fresh insight into the story itself, but insight into what it means to be human.
Such is the genre-bending novel Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. It’s a dystopian character study, what science fiction would be if science fiction was literary and reflective and concerned more with character development than fancy gadgets. It is a novel where there is nothing that can be called action– not in the modern car-chase-and-gun-fight sense of the word. Yet it sinks us into a much deeper and more mature human drama where things like a tantrum, a lost cassette tape, an uneventful day-trip to the city, lead us through the dizzying labyrinth of the human psyche.
Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are classmates at a beautiful, orderly British boarding school called Hailsham– where the teachers are kind, the rules seem fair, and life appears ideal. The novel is told through Kathy’s first-person voice, in a conversational style that bounces back and forth on the narrative timeline. As readers, we are like the friend listening to someone relating anecdotes about her childhood. We are primed to be open and accepting, to take what Kathy tells us at face-value. Every so often, Kathy will relate something that is just the tiniest bit off– not something jarringly obvious, but the kind of thing that might make us raise our eyebrows for half a second. And then we move on because we’re so sunk into the inter-relational politics of boarding school life, the way Kathy gives voice to the same thoughts and questions and secret fears that we’ve always felt about our own relationships. So when the next little off comment comes, again, we might not pay much attention to it, yet there is an uneasiness that builds, as we start to have the lurking feeling that all is not as it seems at Hailsham.
I’m not going to give anything away– and even that makes it sound like there’s a giant “reveal”, which there isn’t. It’s like we drift into knowing the story behind Hailsham the same way Kathy and her friends do, but it’s so intertwined within the relationships that those still feel like the most important thing. Ishiguro’s writing is so perfect for the story, Kathy’s voice so utterly convincing, that you won’t want to put it down. It’s a novel perfect for sinking your teeth into during a quiet evening at home.