Once again, before I go any further I have to ‘fess up. As with a few other titles in my book challenge so far, I have seen the film of Never Let Me Go before reading the book, and in fact even reviewed it. At the time, despite a core of brilliant performances from Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield (who I might just have a slight soft spot for …), I felt there was something missing from this fairly good film that might easily have been great. Not so with Ishiguro’s novel.
In fact I experienced that usual sinking feeling of wishing I had read the book first. Not that the film is bad, and in many ways it is skilfully adapted from the novel, maintaining much of the tone, but this is a book that really benefits from a hefty punch of brutal shock. To give away the horror that gradually becomes apparent in the first few chapters would be to spoil the experience for other readers, but I can imagine that this slow unveiling would be effectively harrowing for those without as little as an inkling beforehand.
To give the plot in a nutshell without any spoilers, Ishiguro’s novel is narrated by the sensitive and insightful Kathy, who is looking back over her past and trying to come to terms with painful memories. Her life has always been closely wound up with the lives of her two best friends, Ruth and Tommy, ever since their childhood together in Hailsham, an isolated and seemingly idyllic country boarding school. As they grow up, however, all three become aware of a dark shadow hanging over their future, a looming fate that is entangled throughout with the complex relationships between the trio.
While Ishiguro’s dystopian twist is a menacing and dominant presence throughout, it serves more as a constant backdrop than as the main feature. Where the novel could have been crudely moralistic, Ishiguro subtly probes the horrifying issue he has exposed, using the material around it to prompt difficult questions rather than ever directly confronting it. Although his message is important and should act as a chilling warning to all readers, this is a book that is just as much about love, friendship and the nature of memories.
A similar feeling that niggled while watching the film adaptation, however, also gnaws at me during the reading of this book. Perhaps I am too used to the prisoners of literary dystopias rebelling against their fate, but the resignation that permeates this novel was the most bitter pill to swallow. As I wrote in my review of the film, ‘the sacrificial lambs yield all too willingly to their fate’. Despite her other appealing qualities, Kathy’s passivity sometimes made me want to slap her, while even the feisty Ruth cannot summon the spirit to fight against the path laid out for her.
But perhaps, after all, it is this disturbing acquiescence which really gives the novel its eerie air of horror. Often it is the quiet, hidden away, swept under the carpet without any fuss sort of atrocities that are the most chilling and this is certainly the case in Never Let Me Go. People go on with their lives without a care and the whole haunting world portrayed by Ishiguro is suffused with Britishness. What hits the hardest about Ishiguro’s horrifying creation is that it seems all too plausible.
Next up … The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. I’m still playing catch up with the blogging but the challenge remains on course!