February 28, 2011

Never Let Me Go

I read Kazuo Ishiguro's NEVER LET ME GO for the first time in 2007. It had been recommended by a friend or two, but I don't recall what was said that made me want to pick it up. Possibly just, "You must read this." I recently read it again.

The description on the back of the edition I have explains wonderfully little. That first time, I learned that the story is about three friends who attended an English boarding school together, and now one of them is reflecting on their time there. It didn't sound that interesting, to be honest, but I trusted the recommendations and nearly started reading without knowing anything more, which I think is the best way to approach this book. Unfortunately, as is my habit, I looked at the Library of Congress subject headings on the copyright page, which contains a big spoiler. If you haven't read the book, don't look there. (You're not looking, are you?)

Since I advocate reading this book without learning anything about it, I'm reluctant to post about it, but I do want to talk about how much I love the narrative voice. I'm going to focus on the beginning of the book, and I won't give away any of the big secrets, but if you'd prefer to remain entirely unspoiled, feel free to move on.

The book starts with the notation "England, late 1990s," a time already in the past when the book was published in 2005. The narrator opens by introducing herself:

My name is Kathy H. I'm thirty-one years old, and I've been a carer now for over eleven years.

By the end of the first paragraph, she has shared her pride in how well she does her job:

My donors have always tended to do much better than expected. Their recovery times have been impressive, and hardly any of them have been classified as "agitated," even before fourth donation.

Kathy goes on for a couple of pages about "carers" and "donors" without ever explaining what she's talking about. By the time she moves on to reminiscing about her idyllic childhood at a place called Hailsham, the reader has a suspicion that something is going on in Kathy's world that didn't exist in the 1990s England that we're aware of. We'd like to know what that's about, but Kathy is busy describing a taunting incident that occurred among her classmates when she was twelve. She's quite concerned with getting the details of the memory right and pinpointing what she remembers and what she isn't certain of.

The moment I adore appears ten pages into the book: "I don't know how it was where you were," Kathy writes. Now we start to understand why Kathy doesn't explain carers and donors: she's addressing an audience of her peers, who are already familiar with what she's talking about. From time to time, Kathy makes more such references to our supposed shared history. The effect continues to thrill me.

Kathy has set out to record an accurate account of her time at Hailsham. She's rarely concerned with the significance of caring and donation, because that's not the purpose of her memoirs, and it's not what the readers she imagines want to learn about. As the real readers of Ishiguro's novel, we're most interested in the aspects of Kathy's story that she's most offhand about. While she explores the complicated dynamics of her two closest friendships, we gradually assemble the clues that reveal how Kathy's world differs from our own.

If -- and only if! -- you've read the book, check out this discussion by Vito Excalibur. She must have been one of the people who originally recommended the book to me, and this insight has stayed with me.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Book Lady Rebecca Schinsky is reading WAR AND PEACE: "I'm hoping that by recording my reading of this most intimidating of classics (with the possible exception of Ulysses), I'll be able to demystify the process for others who, like me, have trembled at the thought of cracking its spine."

No comments:

Post a Comment