Trevor's Reviews > Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
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Nov 30, 07

bookshelves: literature
Recommended for: almost anyone
Read in January, 2007

It is a pity that people are told this is a science fiction book before they read it. I feel the least interesting thing about it is that it is science fiction. I mean this in much the same way that the least interesting thing one could say about 1984 is that it is science fiction. As a piece of literature I enjoyed it much more than Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake and even more than Huxley's Brave New World.

The themes that make this book most interesting are to do with the social alienation of groups of people on the basis of inherited genetic characteristics. In fact, as a critique of racism this book is utterly brilliant. Those being racially alienated are genetically identical (they are in fact clones) to those attacking them.

Plato believed those 'in the know' should tell lies to those 'who do not know' so as to protect them from the all too horrible truths about life. I have always hated this aspect of Plato, always finding it grotesque and frightening in its implications. Those implications are drawn out in all their disturbing horror here.

This book has much to say about the nature of 'illness' and how those inflicted with an 'illness' use the scars of that illness as the badges of truly belonging to the group. So that those 'less advanced' in the ravages of the illness don't really know or really belong to the group. As a portrait of victims adopting to being victims it says much about us as humans - thoughtful readers may find it says far too much. I write this on World Aids Day.

Ishiguro writes the most nightmarish novels I've ever read. In others, such as The Unconsoled or When We Were Orphans the nightmare feeling is due to the dreamlike oddity of the interconnection of events in the story. One reads these books in much the same way that one wakes from a disturbing dream, with feelings of disorientation and anxiety. Even though this is the most literal 'nightmare book' of his I have read - the world he creates being literally a nightmare, and made all the worse by being set in the recent past - it is a book totally lacking in that strange dreamlike quality so characteristic of these other novels. In this sense it seemed less of a nightmare than these others. If you struggled with these, you will not struggle with this in quite the same way.

He also has fascinating and quite painful things to say about the nature of love and how love has a proper time, a time that may be lost or missed. As someone who has loved, lost and missed I found this particularly challenging. The relationship between sex and love and illness is perhaps something people may find simply too much - not because this is handled in any way that is too explicit, but because I do believe we like to think that sex, as a manifestation of love, has curative and redemptive powers. A book that questions this, questions something we hold very dear and some readers may find this too much to ask.

This is also a book about betrayal. The betrayals we commit against those we love the most and yet that we barely can understand or explain after we have committed them - these are constant throughout the book. He is a writer all too aware of the human condition. The scene which gives the book its title is a wonderful example of the near impossibility of our being understood by others and yet our endless desire for just such an understanding.

There is nothing easy about reading this book - although it is written in the simplest of prose. It has an honesty of feeling that brands one's soul.

I loved this book and have thought about it a lot since I finished reading it and will think about it more. There is much more I would like to say, but there is no space. May we all be good carers before we complete.
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Comments (showing 9-58)





Birgit Alsinger Thank you for a beautiful review. I just finished this book last night and it has stayed within me, colouring this sunne day a bit grey. This book reallly affects you.


Trevor Hi Laurence, it is in the Republic.

At the end of Book 2 while Socrates is discussing the poets he makes it clear that he considers their stories of the gods to be what he calls ‘lies’ – but interestingly, what he means by a lie is that, even if these stories are literally true, the fact that they will have a bad effect on the young means these stories should not be told. Essentially Plato’s argument is that since the higher truth is that the gods are perfect (and it is impossible to conceive the perfect lying in any way – changing shape, disagreeing over ends, etc) and the stories about the gods make them appear to be less than perfect, then we must not tell these stories about the gods.

In book 3 he states, “Then if any one at all is to have the privilege of lying, the rulers of the State should be the persons; and they, in their dealings either with enemies or with their own citizens, may be allowed to lie for the public good.” And then proposes that the ideal state would be one in which citizens are lied to about the nature of their births saying that citizens are all brothers and sisters, but that some have gold in their souls, some silver and some bronze. These are designed to convince everyone of two necessary ideas - their fundamental identity with the state and why there are necessary differences in rank.

Most fiction that recalls the Republic to me does so on this point – that there is a fundamental truth that rulers need to sustain (a well ordered society) and this forgives them lying generally about the true nature of the world. The whole philosopher king idea is essentially based on such a ruler lying to the rest of the citizens – although, lying may seem strong, given Plato doesn’t believe the hoi polloi can cope with the truth in its purest forms anyway, and so lies of omission are both necessary and good.

Was there ever a ruler (take Rupert Murdoch as a current day example – a man who, it seemed, had to anoint even Obama before he could become President) who did not believe that their lies were necessitated by the limits that the lesser around them had in their ability to fully appreciate the truth? This view of our betters knowing what is best for us and protecting us from the full nature of this truth is the true horror of Plato’s vision, to me at least.


Callum Ewan Often when someone reads a review they are trying to find out if the book is worth reading, and you say that it's a shame people get told its sci-fi - yet I found out through reading your review.


Trevor One of life's little ironies.


Steffi brilliant review!


Trevor Thank Steffi


message 52: by Athens (new) - added it

Athens Awesome review, thank you. Like the observation on Plato, who is The Philosopher, to me.

I have a copy of the UK editions, and hope to read it in the coming decade or two - list is way too long.

Cheers,

Paul


Trevor Like someone (I can never remember who) says, the rest of Western Philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. This is one of my favourite reviews - and by far the most popular of all my reviews. I've no idea what makes a review popular and what makes it wither on the vine - maybe if they could make a film of Foucault's The Order of Things...


message 50: by Athens (new) - added it

Athens I see you are knowledgeable about The Republic. Have you ever run across the Thomas Taylor translations? I have read the full works in a couple English translations, tried to learn a tiny bit of Greek too, but it is quite a task to learn, let me say honestly, it is very arduous. I know only a very few things. At any rate, pardon the rambling, you might like Taylor because he really was a Platonist, more so than anything else.

Interested to know if you have run across him.


Trevor I started reading the complete dialogues a few years back, but I'll need to check the translation when I get home. Mostly I've read the Penguin versions but also have a big book of them that is quite old. I always mean to go back and read them all - but other things become urgent and so get in the way. I would love to have time to read more Aristotle too - in fact, to re-read the bits of him I have read - but that's another story.


message 48: by Athens (new) - added it

Athens Man, Trevor, it is good to know you. Without the Internet....

Doubt we will ever meet, but I want to keep our association alive over time.

Paul


Trevor Yes, the internet is amazing, it is hard to imagine how we ever lived without it - I even have quite a different relationship with my daughters here. We email each other about things it is hard to get to talk about otherwise. And yes, anyone who is prepared to learn some Ancient Greek so as to be able to read and understand Plato is well worth knowing.


Alicia Another lovely review.

You found it to be, among other things, a consideration of racism, while I went to fascism. Fascism could be said to be prejudice writ large. The book seems to consider our willingness to accept impossible constructs, making horror banal. How can the subjugated accept their bonds, and how would a society accept the dehumanization? Ishiguro answers, "By making their impossible situation utterly normal, just 'the way things are'." In NLMG's world, there will be no revolution because only a very few of the oppressed suspect --it never rises to belief -- that the system is flawed. The clones merely want to live, without taking a moral stance on it, without idealism, without a philosophy. The Guardian ladies of Hailsham are the only protectors of a moral position, and their protection fails because society has found a 'belief' (clones have no souls) that supports the benefit they receive (replacement parts). It struck me that when Tommy and Kathy found the now retired Guardians, one was in a wheelchair--apparently uncured by a contribution from a clone --living her ideals without comment or complaint. I could not help thinking of ordinary Germans under the Nazis and the rare and weak moments of individual protest.

Ishiguro is astonishing talented in his thinking and his writing. 'When We Were Orphans' manages mostly through tone [an achievement in pure writing chops that was stunning all by itself) to suggest the idea that the maturity of an individual or a society will come only through pain, conflict, a chaos of allegiances, betrayal. To my eye, he argues against simplistic solutions, the obvious path, against rhetoric or what passes for political debate. This argument against the strictures of narrow thinking is a theme in many of his books -- Remains of the Day, Unconsoled...

But, being Ishiguro, the central theme is never the whole story. You put it better than most that his grasp considers so many aspects the clones situation --he doesn't merely state their condition, but considers their reactions and choices. A terrific, astonishing writer, a complex and interesting thinker.


Trixie Fontaine Totally: "This book has much to say about the nature of 'illness' and how those inflicted with an 'illness' use the scars of that illness as the badges of truly belonging to the group. So that those 'less advanced' in the ravages of the illness don't really know or really belong to the group."


Trevor Sorry Alicia, just seen this comment now. Yes, lovely comment and couldn't agree more. And thanks Trixie.


message 43: by Bricksta (new)

Bricksta Hi Trevor. I love your review writing style. There seems to be much passion in how you describe this book and it motivates me to read it right now! :-) Good luck with your PhD. I contemplated doing one in law, but would rather spend my time reading books on anything other than law.


Justine Never Let Me Go is a science fiction book like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a science fiction book. Ishiguro is a brilliant author.


Trevor Thanks Bricksta - I think doing a PhD on anything other than what you love would be a nightmare.

And I agree Justine. I've been reading about racism lately and think back to this book often. The more I think about it the better it is.


message 40: by Gary (new)

Gary Spaulding Trevor, your review was honest and sincere on the level of reaching the very essence of beauty and truth itself.


Trevor High praise indeed, thanks Jay.


Zenmoon Wow Trevor ... I just skipped through the later comments (will return to them later) to say I enjoyed your insights and will think about them when I read the novel... and also, goodness gracious, 396 views?! Terrific review so no wonder, but jeez, 396, oops there it goes 397 ....


Trevor Thanks Zenmoon - this is one of my favourite reviews, written when there was a limit on the number of words a review could be. I really enjoyed this book.


message 36: by Julie (new)

Julie This is not the sort of book I usually read but I am trying to diversify the types of book I read. So I will most definitely think about reading this one.So many books and so little time !!


Trevor Felicity got me to read his The Unconsoled - but it was a hard book to read while working at the ASU. There was more than enough Kafka in my life at that time to be adding to it all willy-nilly.


message 34: by Lit Bug (new) - added it

Lit Bug Can you recommend some sci-fi dystopian novels? I need a list to pursue my Ph.D. on the same. Thank you.


Trevor Only the obvious ones, I'm afraid - 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake. Others here would probably be able to give you a much fuller list. I'm not much help, sorry.


message 32: by Lit Bug (new) - added it

Lit Bug Trevor wrote: "Only the obvious ones, I'm afraid - 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake. Others here would probably be able to give you a much fuller list. I'm not much help, sorry."

Thank you so much Trevor, your help is definitely much appreciated... I will keep on trying.. :)


message 31: by Lit Bug (new) - added it

Lit Bug Not only for the recommendations Trevor, but thank you for the excellent review too... Whether this book fits the dystopian sci-fi bill or not, I am sure to read it after reading your review. It is a pleasure to come across people like you who not only enjoy reading, but who think over seriously after reading, who find themselves a little moved, a little changed, a little affected by the works they have read. And who also take great pains to write a beautiful review and encourage others to read and think too. Wonderful work, am looking forward to reading more from you. (Am new to this site).. Thank you...


Cecily I agree that the sci-fi label is misleading (and if you haven't read the blurb on the back that gives away the main plot twist, it will be baffling for a while, as might dystopian). Perhaps the "speculative fiction" label that Atwood, amongst others, likes, would be better.


Colette Guerin If I had thought this was science fiction I would have never read it, not my genre. Dystopian literature on the other hand is. Whoever said this was science fiction is a fool. Well written review.


Trevor Thanks Lit Bug, Cecily and Colette - I wish I had more time to read more of him. I started his short stories and wasn't even able to finish reading those. Hopeless.


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Lit Bug I haven't yet read it, but since it is not SF maybe I'll take it up another time. I didn't enjoy Oryx and Crake as much as others did, so I'm hopeful it will be better than that.


Cecily It's nothing like Oryx and Crake.

Well, there are a few similar issues, but in every pertinent way, the style, structure, setting, language, pace etc are very different.


Trevor This reads like a coming of age novel set in a private boarding school. It would be hard for it to be less what it seems.


Scott And Margaret Atwood denies that Oryx and Crake is science fiction, and I agree. Neither is this. There is no science.


Trevor There is only one time you should trust what an author has to say about their work - never. Writers of fiction are liars by definition...

I enjoyed this novel much more than I did Oryx and Crake, but remember enjoying that one too when I read it (unfortunately, it seems, prior to coming onto GoodReads). I'm not sure I would put those two books together on my imaginary bookshelf - Atwood goes better with Orwell and Ishiguro with Kafka - and I certainly wouldn't put Orwell and Kafka together. I must have read somewhere this book was classified as science fiction, and people have tended to classify it as such (rightly or wrongly), so I was reacting to that in the first sentence of my review - still, like all great books this one defies simple categories, I think.


Scott I think that a lot of sci fi fans claim both this Ishiguro and the Atwood trilogy, and I've read essays where they get rather irate with Atwood in particular for not taking them under her wing, in e.g. http://www.wired.com/underwire/2013/0...


Cecily Scott wrote: "And Margaret Atwood denies that Oryx and Crake is science fiction, and I agree. Neither is this. There is no science."

I agree. In many ways, it doesn't matter, but it can mean readers choosing or rejecting the book on a false premise.


Vidya Bhushan Excellent analysis Trevor and Nick. I read many reviews of NLMG after reading the book as I was so confused ,rather,as Trevor put it...anxious or disturbed after reading it....it was truly nightmarish yet an awesome experience to read this book and then think about it for days at end and its characters,mainly kathy and ruth because tommy for some reasons was not made as powerful or impressive as these two.
Various reviews and the movie helped me ease out my anxiety as most questions got answered and I fell in love with the book.
The only question that still bothers me is why this fait accompli and why this determinism...why would any human race accept it...after all they did have "souls".Why no escapism no elopement no suicide no revolt...well may be that's what puts this novel in a seperate genre than 1984 for example.
But in the end I m happy that the author stayed far far away from any gory details unlike the movie..which not only altered some very crucial scenes but also made things very explicit although subtelty was the uniqueness of this book.So the movie was certainly a disappointment after the book.


Trevor I haven't been able to bring myself to watch the film. Unfortunately, I look around at our grossly unequal societies and I have to accept that escape, elopement, suicide and revolt are the least likely responses to dehumanising exploitation.


Scott Wonderful review Trevor. I still have the occasional nightmare about this book.


Trevor Thanks Scott - it is years since I read it, but I still think about it often. Amusingly enough, it never lets you go.


Sheila Mulrooney Thank you for such an insightful review! I'm glad this book is getting the appreciation it deserves.

I'm curious as to where Plato states those 'in the know' should lie to those who are not. In what dialogue does he make that point?


Trevor Hi Sheila

See message 53 above for references to The Republic.

All the best


Susan Enjoyed your review. I'm grateful that I hadn't seen any reference to the book as "science fiction" before I read Never Let Me Go. The term is a spoiler, in and of itself. Yes, the reader will quickly begin to suspect the purpose of the school and it's odd sub-class of inhabitants, but to be robbed of that creeping sensation would have diminished the novel for me...Margaret Atwood's extraordinary The Handmaid's Tale is sometimes described as science fiction too, and Atwood has objected, rightly so.


Trevor Thanks Susan - I remember enjoying The Handmaid's Tale - if that is the right word, and it probably isn't. I think I even got my daughter to read it.


message 12: by La (new) - rated it 5 stars

La Laith Agreed. This is a human story, a life story... Meaning of life story... All the sci fi is there to put a screen so the questions would be visible.


Trevor Thanks La


Trevor I avoid this problem by not reading reviews of books I intend to read. I commend it as a strategy for you, Marianne.


Stephanie Terrific review and discussion -- I liked the fact that you highlighted the theme of having a "responsibility" to protect the innocent from painful truths and the connection to Plato. I especially loved your discussion of the dreamlike quality of the book and the theme of love/sexuality. This was my first novel by this author; I will definitely read more.


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