(Okay, that's a mouthful, but it's hard to summarize this book without adding spoilers, though honestly, even if you're "spoiled" as to the truth at the heart of the story, I don't think it will change your reading of the book much. However, the review below is spoiler-free.)
Goodreads: Average 3.66. Mode: 4 stars.
Amazon: Average 3.9. Mode: 5 stars.
From the acclaimed author of The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans, a moving new novel that subtly reimagines our world and time in a haunting story of friendship and love.
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.
A tale of deceptive simplicity, Never Let Me Go slowly reveals an extraordinary emotional depth and resonance-and takes its place among Kazuo Ishiguro's finest work.
Never Let Me Go is frequently categorized as science fiction, just because it happens to be about [vaguely science fictiony concept], but it's only a SF novel in concept, not in implementation. On the surface, it takes place in our world, and it's only as you get deeper into the novel that you see where it diverges. But the divergence isn't the point of the story, it's just a setting that frames the situation for the main characters: Kathy H. (the first-person narrator) and her friends Ruth and Tommy. Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy grew up together at a British boarding school called Hailsham, and at first the story seems to be just another boarding school bildungsroman, albeit one written with Ishiguro's beautiful and award-winning prose.
In fact, Ishiguro breaks a lot of rules by doing things that authors are often told they shouldn't do, and which would annoy me intensely if done by a lesser author. The story is mostly an intimate series of reminiscing and reflecting by the main character, which is the sort of story that would normally have me clawing my eyes out, and yet the scenes are such perfect bits of characterization that the literary quality alone will keep you reading to marvel at Ishiguro's ability to sketch relationships and personalities with small moments.
And then there is the Reveal (or rather, a series of Reveals). Usually, I hate it when the author (through the voice of the main character) keeps secrets from the reader. It's fine when the reader is surprised at the same time that the main characters are, but it feels like a cheat when information that the characters are perfectly aware of is withheld from the reader, just so it can be sprung as a surprise at a dramatic moment. At its worst, it becomes what the Turkey City Lexicon refers to as the Jar of Tang (or "For you see, dear reader, I am a dog!"). In Never Let Me Go, there are certain truths about the world that Kathy takes for granted, and so she never bothers to explicate them, even though those truths, when they arrive with what (for the reader) will become a slowly dawning horror, are at the heart of the story.
Kathy's narrative consists mostly of a stream of anecdotes about growing up at Hailsham, and her life afterwards. She skips back and forth a lot; she'll be referring to something that happened when she was twelve or thirteen, and say "But first I want to talk about what happened the year before," or she'll skip ahead with "But I remembered this later when..." This may sound like an annoying and hard-to-follow way to structure a book, but it actually flows pretty smoothly once you get used to it. None of these episodes are irrelevant; everything fits together, and everything informs our understanding of the world and Kathy's life. The things you notice -- phrases Kathy uses, words whose meanings are not immediately explained, questions that arise often because of what's missing more than what's present -- slip smoothly into the story in a way that makes me jealous of Ishiguro's ability to almost avoid exposition entirely. By the time something that has been alluded to throughout the book is finally spelled out, you just nod your head and think, "Well, yeah, that's what I figured."
(Or, if you're like me, you'd already figured out most of it by the end of the first chapter, but it doesn't make any difference in what follows.)
Reading other reviews for Never Let Me Go, I noticed something about the negative reviews: many of them criticize the book for being "bad science fiction" and in particular, many readers are disappointed at the way the main characters quietly accept their fate. Which goes back to what I said at the beginning of my review: this is not really a science fiction novel. Ishiguro's "worldbuilding" could certainly be picked apart because of all the unanswered questions about the setting (and yes, even some logical inconsistencies), and the resolution is not SF in nature at all. This is a book about characters and relationships, while the dystopian elements slowly build up and enfold you at the same pace that you realize how entrapped and constrained the characters are.
Never Let Me Go is now a movie starring Kiera Knightly, and early reports show that it's getting mixed reviews. I'm not surprised. When I first heard it was being made into a movie, my first reaction was: "What kind of movie will this make?" and my second was: "The audience is so not going to get this." But I'm going to see it, because I'd like to see whether the director did.
Verdict: A well-crafted piece of literary fiction worthy of study for its character portraits and the way the narrative is structured. But at its heart, there's still a creepy bit of sci-fi to entertain genre readers as well, if you've got the patience to let the story unfold at its own pace.