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The novel I read for January was Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. With three weeks away from work during the holidays, and me confined to the house trying to recover from pneumonia, I ended up reading the novel pretty quickly. I picked the novel because it was on several top ten lists, including making it to #1 on Time magazine’s top 10 novels of the 2000s.
Here’s the thing about the novel (and I’m going to do my very best not to spoil the book for those who may still read it)…
It was a REALLY great idea, and it was truly ambitious of Ishiguro to write this story. It was a completely different take on the “life of the boarding school student” type of story, and I saw it as a fantastic and unique type of coming-of-age novel. But (and this seemed to be a very small but in the minds of the many critics who wrote glowing reviews) I couldn’t stand the dry, emotionless, and very slow telling of the story by the narrator, Kathy.
The novel is narrated by Kathy as a thirty-year-old woman looking back on the time she spent as a child in Hailsham, a British boarding school for “special” children (and by special I don’t mean “special needs” as the term is often used here in the US K-12 system…I mean special in the “there’s something very different going on with these kids” kind of special). The students lead an extremely sheltered existence behind the Hailsham walls, and the reader senses early on that there’s something unusual about the school (and not unusual in the “Harry Potter magical powers” kind of unusual…more like the “why do they keep referring to their teachers as guardians, and why are they told that they can never ever have babies” type of unusual).
For my taste, the novel takes way too long getting to its point, although Ishiguro does a fairly good job of dropping hints early on in the story. As you can see, I’m finding it very difficult to recount the plot without giving too much of its secrets away. Maybe that was my problem with the narration. Ishiguro is a skilled writer, and this is exemplified by the fact that he challenged himself to unpeel the hidden layers of the story using the first-person narrative of a young woman. The difficulty in the first-person narrative is that this main character has all the secrets to the story. She must tell her tale in a way that’s suspenseful enough to keep me turning the pages, but careful enough to not give it all away too soon. The two troubles I had with Never Let Me Go is that (1) Kathy’s tale was not as suspenseful as I hoped, and (2) careful readers will figure it all out a bit too soon and then spend the rest of the time watching things unfold predictably.
Now that’s not to say that I don’t recommend the book. This is the type of story that had a deeper and profound effect on me after I finished it and allowed it to marinate in my thoughts for a few days afterward. In fact, even thinking about the story now gives me an unsettling type of feeling. I also admire the fact that Ishiguro attempted to write a sentimental coming-of-age story with a young love triangle twist in the genre of science fiction (at least that’s the genre in which many reviewers have placed it). A science fiction story of that nature immediately sets him apart from his contemporaries.
This story was made into a movie recently, so after I finished the book, I watched the film hoping that I’d be more entertained seeing the story unfold before my eyes. I was wrong. The movie had the exact opposite feel to me…there were too many places that were way too rushed. The focus of the movie was more on the relationships between the three main characters (Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy) as they navigated adolescence, young adulthood, and falling in love. Those were integral parts of the novel, but I thought more emphasis should have been placed on the school, the students, and the uniqueness of the entire situation in which they were placed. That and I just never really liked Kiera Knightly.
Overall, Never Let Me Go was a fairly good read (not necessarily deserving of the moniker “best novel of the 2000s”), but an interesting idea just the same. If any of you read it, contact me and we can talk about it sometime.