by Kazuo Ishiguro
When reading, I tend to explore everything laid out on and within the copy of the book at hand before getting into the story proper––you know, synopses, blurbs, forewords, introductions. And I’m aware of vast differences of opinion about how you should and should not proceed in this respect, especially with regard to things that have greater potential to spoil aspects of the plot, introductions in particular. I bring this up here for a couple reasons, firstly because I believe that my process has only hurt my enjoyment of literature when something misleads me, usually a synopsis failing to get to the heart of the story, causing me to come at the story with unreasonable expectations––a rare problem I’ve previously discussed, but one that may pertain to Never Let Me Go. This is only speculation on my part, however, as Never Let Me Go was the first case in a heck of a long time where I’ve actually consumed the book without reading a shred about its plot beforehand, and, as such, I came at it with fewer preconceptions than I usually would. Otherwise, reviews and discussions involving Never Let Me Go seem time and time again to come back to this idea that your enjoyment is strongly tied to whether you were aware of its basic premise ahead of time or not, and I’d like to explore this idea throughout this review. For, after mulling it around for a bit on my own and talking with a couple of people I know who disliked the book, I’m left with the belief that relative satisfaction toward the story has less to do with foreknowledge of this premise and more to do with how a reader expects the story to play out after discovering it, regardless of whether the discovery came before or during the read. Be warned that I plan to talk about the story’s central idea, but I think it will at least lead to something useful by the end.
In Never Let Me Go, Kathy H. reminisces about her upbringing at Hailsham, a private school that raises clones cut off from the outside world. These clones, such as Kathy, are eventually fated to have their organs harvested for the benefit of normal people, though they are first trained to care for other clones who are in the middle of the “donation” process. The story mainly looks at our narrator’s relationships with her friends, Ruth and Tommy, as she works to understand the world around them, as well as their place within it. In many ways, it’s a coming of age story, and I suspect that this is the most likely source of dissatisfaction attributed to spoilers. It seems to me that Never Let Me Go is literary fiction masquerading as sci-fi. In this vein, it doesn’t seem to take a huge leap of imagination for me to believe that a significant draw for at least some readers to science fiction or dystopian stories would be to see an author’s exploration of the implications of this central idea, and that it could serve to erode enjoyment if the author only does so on what feels like a superficial basis, as I believe you could argue happened within Never Let Me Go, at least where more overt discussion is concerned. Instead, Ishiguro favours a character-driven narrative that serves more to often simply humanize his clones, which may not seem like enough to some readers. (Another likely source of dissatisfaction has to do with suspension of disbelief, demonstrated by the seemingly common comments online that people found it difficult to accept that none of the clones would run away or attempt to avoid their fates in other ways. Here, a reader that struggles with basic concepts that are needed to move the plot forward will obviously have difficulties with the story. And I think this idea is strongly tied to the previous one, that readers who most struggle to accept a plot point are those who view the story simply as poor sci-fi.)
Understanding this is central to understanding and appreciating Never Let Me Go. While the author only rarely guides us overtly through the implications of his premise, he still directs us to complex and frightening concepts in subtle ways, but following this lead takes work from the reader. Sometimes this involves stopping to appreciate the fates of the characters or considering how “normal” people felt justified treating clones who we experience being just as normal as them––usually triggered, for me, when Kathy nonchalantly or euphemistically brings up donations. Other times, this involves looking at things from an allegorical perspective. As an example here, specific plot points can be taken at face value, such as the clones accepting their fates without running away, or a reader can try to consider what the author may be implying through the specific presentation of the idea. And though some aspects of the story can be difficult to see, all sorts of interesting dimensions to the story present themselves if you can spot them. A great example here involves the idea of Kathy as an unreliable narrator. While this isn’t a novel concept for an Ishiguro novel, it’s not as obviously present as in some of his other stories, but it’s arguably used to similar effectiveness as in An Artist of the Floating World to suggest deep character traits in this case.
So I experienced quite a bit in Never Let Me Go that I found thoughtful, nuanced, and interesting, but I think it’s easy to pass over it without noticing if you approach it with the wrong expectations. This is why I think it’s important to push back against the reigning opinion that “spoiling” its premise effectively ruins the story: I truly believe that expectations can be tempered by learning a bit about what you’re getting yourself into before starting, and hopefully clarity more easily can follow from there.