Krenzel's Reviews > Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
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Nov 16, 08

bookshelves: ala-notables, 1001
Read in June, 2008

In "Never Let Me Go," a fictional story focusing on three classmates from a unique boarding school, author Kazuo Ishiguro deals with questions of loss and mortality that each of must eventually confront. As we get older, as we lose our friends and family, as the environment around us changes and things once familiar to us disappear or become unfamiliar, as we cling to our memories of how things used to be, how do we come to accept the fact that our lives are finite and attach some meaning to our limited existence? These are questions that the narrator of "Never Let Me Go," Kathy H. copes with as she recounts the disjointed memories that comprise her life. Sorting through these memories, she finds comfort in her friends and her career, eventually coming to terms with the meaning of her life and her ultimate fate.

Reflecting upon her life, Kathy devotes most of her time to thinking about her friends from Hailsham, a secluded boarding school where she grew up. Because contact with outsiders at Hailsham is limited, one of the school’s big events is the quarterly Exchange, where students are given tokens they can use to buy other students’ artwork. As this is the students’ only way of accumulating material possessions, they grow dependent on each other for their "personal treasures" and learn to value others’ work, forging unique bonds with one another. Kathy’s two best friends are Ruth, an extroverted leader at the school, and Tommy, a shy introvert who gets bullied due to his lack of creativity and inability to produce substantial work. While they depend on each other throughout their time at Hailsham, like a lot of friends they drift apart after leaving the school. Looking back at the petty argument that led to the group’s break, Kathy comments, "It never occurred to me that our lives, until then so closely interwoven, could unravel and separate over a thing like that." Kathy regrets the loss of her friends, but doesn’t do anything about it until she hears that Hailsham is closing: "[I]t started to dawn on me, I suppose, that a lot of things I’d always assumed I’d plenty of time to get around to doing, I might now have to act on pretty soon or else let them go forever." Realizing that her time is limited, Kathy decides what is important to her – what she doesn’t want to let go of – and reconnects with her old friends, Ruth and Tommy.

In addition to her friends, Kathy’s career has a special meaning in her life. Kathy begins the book by identifying herself as a "carer." Although a lot of carers "are just going through the motions waiting for the day they’re told to stop," Kathy enjoys her work, the long drives and the solitude, and she knows she is good at what she does. As a carer, she helps look after patients, assisting as they recover from "donations" and keeping them calm. She knows that she is a good carer, which is important to her: "[I]t means a lot to me, being able to do my work well." However, when she becomes Tommy’s carer, he questions the meaning of her work, asking her if she really considers her job to be important since all of her patients are going to "complete," or die, anyway. Kathy responds, "Of course, it’s important. A good carer makes a big difference." When reflecting upon her life, Kathy decides not only that her friends are important to her, but she also considers her job important, believing she makes a difference by helping others.

However, as the book begins, Kathy only has eight months left as a carer, and then she will begin the last phase of her life. Initially, Kathy does not accept this fate, hoping to get a "deferral." When the headmaster of Hailsham tells her a deferral is not possible – Kathy cannot escape her ultimate fate any more than the rest of us can – Kathy wonders what the purpose of her life has been: "Why did we do all of that work in the first place? Why train us, encourage us, make us produce all of that? If we’re just going to give donations anyway, then die, why all those lessons? Why all those books and discussions?" In fact, one of the Hailsham teachers, Miss Lucy, had made this same argument when they were children, believing it was more important that they know their ultimate fate than worry about creating artwork and developing their sense of culture: "If you’re to have decent lives, you have to know who you are and what lies ahead of you." But this is not true, the Hailsham headmaster counters, addressing Kathy and Tommy: "Look at you both now! I’m so proud to see you both. You built your lives on what we gave you. You wouldn’t be who you are today if we’d not protected you." Ultimately, Kathy comes to agree with the Hailsham approach. When she meets a patient who did not go to Hailsham, but wants to hear all about her time there so that he can replace his own memories with Kathy’s, Kathy realizes "just how lucky we’d been." Without being warned what lay ahead – as Miss Lucy had wanted – Kathy had been free to live her own life; even if it was messy, it was hers. As the novel concludes, Kathy drives to Norfolk, where she had shared her happiest memories with Tommy: "I imagined this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up, and I was standing in front of it." Instead of hanging on to those things and people she has lost, Kathy realizes that this is as far as her fantasy can go: "I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, and drove off to wherever it was I was supposed to be." Like most of us, Kathy knows her life is limited, and the best we can do is go about our everyday lives, doing what we are supposed to do. She will never let go of her memories of what she has lost, but she has accepted her fate.

Though her life hasn’t been perfect, Kathy, reflecting upon her memories, finds that her life has been meaningful – having had close friends, an important job, and an idyllic childhood, she considers herself "lucky." But has she, in fact, led a decent life? Has her life been purposeful and meaningful? These are universal questions we may all ask of ourselves – how to accept our own mortality and assign purpose to the limited life we have been given. However, these big questions of how to deal with loss and mortality also become a source of frustration and disappointment for readers because, while "Never Let Me Go" builds these questions up, it never seems to fully resolve or answer them. Fortunately, though, it does provide some clues. One of the recurring items of the book relates to a song Kathy plays as a child called "Never Let Me Go." What makes the song special for Kathy is that she assigns her own meaning to the lyrics; instead of listening to the actual words, she imagines her own version of the song: "Even at the time, I realized this couldn’t be right, that this interpretation didn’t fit with the rest of the lyrics. But that wasn’t an issue with me. The song was about what I said." At one point, when Kathy is dancing to the song in her mind, Madame, a Hailsham leader, catches her and starts sobbing. Later Madame confesses that, when she saw Kathy that day, she imagined Kathy was holding onto the old world, a "kind world," which was being replaced by a "harsh, cruel world," but now Madame realizes her interpretation was wrong: "It wasn’t really you, what you were doing." Soon after Madame catches her playing the tape, the tape is lost, her friend Ruth tries to replace it, and later, with Tommy’s help, Kathy finds another copy of the tape. The symbolic implications are clear: just as she assigns her own meaning to the song, Kathy assigns her own meaning to life. Sometimes she may be lost, sometimes others like Tommy may help her, and sometimes others like Madame may assign a different meaning to her life than she does, but Kathy is the final author of her life. While others may deem her life meaningless, she herself is content, if not happy. "Never Let Me Go" may not provide a universal answer for some of the big questions it poses about loss and mortality, but the ultimate message seems to be one of hope: as the authors of our own lives, it is up to each of us to take what we are given and make the most of it.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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martha Boyle Thank you for articulating what I could not. This most haunting book--makes us think of all those univeral questions about life, aging and mortality.


Guillermo Really wonderful and complete review, you cast a new light on this book for me with your interpretation and I'm re-examining the meaning behind the characters' actions


Gmayas Great review and it helped me put the despair I felt after reading the book in a greater context.


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