So I did something I normally never do. I started reading this book and, about three quarters of the way, I watched the movie adaptation, thus “spoiling” the ending. It goes to show how good a writer Ishiguro is that reading the end of the book despite knowing all the twists was still an enjoyable experience.
Published by: Vintage Books, 2010 (2005)
Audiobook: 9 hours
Paperback: 288 pages
My rating: 7,5/10
First sentence: My name is Kathy H.
As a child, Kathy – now thirty-one years old – lived at Hailsham, a private school in the scenic English countryside where the children were sheltered from the outside world, brought up to believe that they were special and that their well-being was crucial not only for themselves but for the society they would eventually enter. Kathy had long ago put this idyllic past behind her, but when two of her Hailsham friends come back into her life, she stops resisting the pull of memory.
And so, as her friendship with Ruth is rekindled, and as the feelings that long ago fueled her adolescent crush on Tommy begin to deepen into love, Kathy recalls their years at Hailsham. She describes happy scenes of boys and girls growing up together, unperturbed – even comforted – by their isolation. But she describes other scenes as well: of discord and misunderstanding that hint at a dark secret behind Hailsham’s nurturing facade. With the dawning clarity of hindsight, the three friends are compelled to face the truth about their childhood–and about their lives now.
The only experience I’ve had with Ishiguro’s books was The Remains of the Day which pretty much blew me away with its eloquence and subtle undertones. The same underlying sadness came through in Never Let Me Go, a story about memories and wasted lives, about friendship and love and what humans are capable of doing to each other.
To change things up a bit, I got my hands on the audiobook version, narrated by Rosalyn Landor. She does a fantastic job of bringing Kathy H.’s childhood memories of her time at Hailsham School come to life. The credit for these memories being so vivid and realistic goes to Kazuo Ishiguro. Don’t we all remember what it was like when your favorite possession – whether it’s a toy, a CD, or some other trinket – is lost. It feels like your whole world is crumbling. And don’t we all remember moments when our secret crush ends up with the other girl? I for my part have plenty of childhood memories that fit the bill, even though I didn’t grow up in an idyllic English countryside boarding school. But the setting is beside the point when it comes to the beautiful friendship between Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy.
These three protagonists are distinctly different characters, their personalities complement each other even though they may not always agree. In the audiobook narration, I was stunned by how calm they stayed, even as children. The impulsive Ruth, for example, who is prone to lying to get attention, seemed strangely reasonable when it came to her relationship with Kathy or Tommy. Kathy herself felt very much like a narrator, even in her own life. She participates in the fun, of course, but I never could shake the feeling that a part of her was also on the outside looking in. It made for interesting observations, to say the least.
There is a science fictional aspect to this seemingly happy story comprised of childhood memories and the growing pains of three young people. Because, and this becomes clear very early on, they are special. The children at Hailsham never talk about their parents, they only have one-letter last names, and they are told that for them, more than anyone else, it is vital to keep in good health. As one of Hailsham’s teachers says so perfectly: They were told, and not told.
I’m going to be vague about it, even though anyone who’s read some science fiction will guess it in the first chapter. Let’s just say that Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy don’t have the same choices we do. Their future is set and it’s not one to look forward to. I was all the more impressed with their way of embracing life, with the way the teachers at Hailsham taught them to enjoy what little bliss there is for them. This is a very sad story that somehow manages to make you happy. It is life affirming and thought provoking, two things that will always make me love a book.
The thing is, we only see one side of the story. Only at the very end is the other side presented, and then only in one short scene. However, putting yourself into that alternate history’s population’s mind makes it easier to understand why Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy will never be allowed to grow up to become waitresses, and actors, and university professors. People kept talking about the amazing plot twist but, as I said, the truth was obvious and didn’t shock me. What did surprise me was how ordinary Kathy’s life seems and how crassly different it really is from “normal” people. The juxtaposition of that normality with the truth that slowly comes to light was more shocking than any “I am your father” twist could have been.
I also loved how the title of the book shows up within its pages. “Never Let Me Go” is Kathy’s favorite song, one for which she makes up her own back story that hits home all the way when you realise just how little hope there is for her or any of her school friends. There are a couple of surprises at the ending but the melancholy tone of the novel prevailed and left me rather deflated.
It’s strange to recommend a book that makes you ultimately sad. But there is no disputing the quality of the writing, the depth of the characters and the sheer drama of their lives. It’s not loud drama but it’s the kind that leaves you emotional and breathless.
Book vs. Movie
I just need to say a few quick words about the movie adaptation. First of all, it was beautifully done. The three main actors blew me away with their performances, but most of all I noticed the difference in deliver between the audiobook narrator and Keira Knightley in her role as Ruth. As I said above, Ruth seemed strangely calm when she spoke in the novel, despite her personality being loud and out there. Keira Knightley managed to make Ruth more believably selfish, jealous, and hypocritical. She did overdo it a little and turned the essentially good Ruth into a cruel person who deliberately hurts her closest friends.
Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield had surprisingly good chemistry and the romance that was very, very subtle in the book, became all the more obvious in their facial expressions. Plot-wise, the movie didn’t change much. A few tiny scenes were taken out here or there, some others moved around in time, but if you’re really lazy, you can watch the movie and get the same story you would from the book. Both book and movie are highly recommended.
RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good