Like most Ishiguro novels, Never Let Me Go features a first-person narrator looking back on his or her life and reflecting on the events from a new perspective. This book's narrator is Kathy H., who is thirty-one years old and has been a carer for over eleven years; her donors have all done really well. Wait a minute, carers, donors, what? England, late 1990s, what? Something isn't right here. Yes, you've stepped into a Booker Prize-winner's AU. What Is Going On slowly reveals itself over the course of the first third of the book (it becomes more and more obvious, so I was glad Ishiguro didn't try to make the basic premise of the book a Big Reveal), and, unfortunately, it's hard to really talk about the book without spoiling the basic premise. But, goddammit, I'm going to try.
Kathy H. grew up in a special school called Hailsham. Why is it special? Yeah, keep asking yourself that. The Hailsham section establishes the basic premise and introduces the main characters: Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth. The meat of the book focuses on the relationship between the three of them. There are two girls and a guy, so that happens, but it's mostly about the friendship, which I appreciated. Ishiguro loves examining the ways people relate to each other, picking apart their interactions and finding meaning in ostensibly meaningless things. It's not just the kids' interactions that are interesting but also their relationships with the guardians (teachers). Because there's some mystery as to what the school's purpose is and why the students do what they do, they must look to the guardians for answers; everything they say or do must be scrutinized.
As the characters grow and mature, things get a little more complicated. The book follows them through the major stages of their lives—yet remember, Kathy is only 31, which is pretty young for a looking-back-on-your-life narrator.
So let's talk about Kathy's narration. Kathy H. is no Stevens, I'll tell you what. Not by a fucking longshot. Kathy's prose is much simpler and somewhat drab. And Kathy has a storytelling gimmick she uses over and over and over and over and also over, which is to end pseudodramatically on a vague description of an event only to immediately begin describing the event after the break. At first, I thought it was kind of clever and interesting, but it eventually became tiresome and repetitive, the kind of "cliffhangers" you expect in cheap airport thrillers. Honestly, the whole book felt like mainstream-friendly Ishiguro, like he was trying to write a book that regular people might read, but in trying to make it more accessible, he kept it from having any spark. Hell, the book builds to the dreaded (anti)climactic infodump. The Remains of the Day, as I mentioned, is an incredibly layered narrative. Never Let Me Go seems incredibly simple; there are no layers at all. Kathy isn't even interestingly unreliable; she constantly hints at things in the past that she sees differently now and identifies key events in retrospect, but she's deliberately withholding from the reader. With The Remains of the Day, the beauty is that Stevens unwittingly leaves parts of the story out because he couldn't see what was going on even though it's clear to the reader.
It's a unique take on the premise, that's for sure. The sci-fi trappings are way in the background, and the story focuses on the human element. It touches on themes dear to me like what makes you who you are and the meaning of life and some spoilery business. Sometimes Ishiguro is subtle about it, but at the end there's this gigantic anvil that pinned me to my bed.
Overall, I found the book an interesting read, and I was somewhat invested in the Kathy/Tommy/Ruth story, but it seemed to be sorely lacking in real punch. There were some nice bits, but I rarely felt emotions when reading, and there's so little action in the book that it needs the emotional resonance to keep you going. The world wasn't as fleshed out as I would have liked, either.
It's disappointing that the author of my favorite book hasn't written another book of consummate greatness. His others seem interesting, but after barely finishing A Pale View of Hills and liking Never Let Me Go okay but not really loving it, I'm afraid to check them out. Hell, I'm almost afraid to re-read The Remains of the Day for fear that I won't love it anymore.