Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Alfred A. Knopf, 288 pages, $24.
In prose as bland as institutional pudding, Kazuo Ishiguro has compiled an unsettling horror story. It’s so constructed, or rigged, that it’s only in the last 20 or so pages (with a rather awkward explanation scene such as Hercule Poirot once relied on) that the horror sinks in. Even then, I’m not sure how lasting or disturbing the disquiet will prove. But Mr. Ishiguro is so stealthy, and so undemonstrative a writer, that his ultimate design (clammy, sweet and too cold to warm the stomach or the spirit) has been palpable all along in the deliberate dispassion-or enervation-of the prose. And so the drab realism of listless, deprived suburban voices fades into the dismay of science fiction. Still, the apocalypse falls more like a sigh than an explosion.
So be wary of the opening indication-“England, late 1990’s”-or the plaintive voice of the narrator, Kathy H. or just Kath. She is 31, she tells us, and a “carer”-as opposed to a “donor,” or a “completed.” Or one of us. Don’t worry, for the moment, about what these pacified terms mean. Just soak up the many half-whining, half-uncertain tics of chat that Kath has-“I do know for a fact,” “I have to admit,” “while we’re on the subject,” “But that’s not really what I want to talk about just now,” “my guess is,” “all of this reminds me” and “anyway …, ” that vague, shy yet tyrannical assertion whereby the English like to change the subject if anything ominous looms on the gray horizon of small talk.
Did people talk like that in the late 1990’s? Yes, and forever before and for as far as the ear can see into the future. Well, you know what I mean. It’s the way people talk in Mike Leigh films, close enough to the cliché of ill-educated “niceness,” yet within reach of a strange surrealism in the English view of themselves that reckons nothing really works these days, does it? Know what I mean?-that lovely remark with its crestfallen intimations of so much lost understanding or forgotten sympathy.
It’s very noticeable as Never Let Me Go begins that Mr. Ishiguro is employing this voice-easily overheard in his England; indeed, hard to escape-yet it’s plainly not his natural way of telling a story. Has he made a decision to inhabit the British lower class-or is it that Kathy H., Ruth and Tommy are there on the page for some other, ulterior purpose? In fact, from the first pages of this book, a kind of dank suspense sets in and breeds a mood in the reader-or in this one-of anxiety mixed with certitude: Despite the remorseless gentility of the language and the antique atmosphere of a rather protective boarding-school setting, you know that a very nasty surprise is coming. And the problem with the novel, I think, is that while the suspense is haunting, it amounts to an overcast that pervades the story and constantly reminds us that the gloom relies on crucial information being withheld.
The “school” is Hailsham. There’s a real town of that name in Sussex, and it’s just the kind of place where there might be a rather sheltered or sheltering school for kids who say “I do know for a fact” in a way that convinces you they know next to nothing. It could be a private school for slow gentry children never quite bright enough for the real world. But Kath, Ruth and Tommy have one odd blank in their lives-they have no parents, no relatives, no family. And so the school serves as a surrogate for those absent ties, and Hailsham-they all want to believe-is out of the ordinary in its care and consideration. After all, there’s a lot worse-know what I mean?
At this point, the reviewer confronts a version of Mr. Ishiguro’s own difficulty with telling his story. The author steadily holds back essential information (it’s as if he’s too kind to admit it, though the kindness builds towards cruelty). And I don’t want to spoil the frisson, or whatever, by going all the way. At the same time, it’s my feeling that “all the way” here is only the ghost of a profound journey. So my obligatory discretion leaves me unable to spell out the real failing of this contrived narrative and the odd heartlessness that leaves the reader in a very artificial limbo. Still, I can say-and I have to say-that the children at Hailsham are a rare few picked out for a special mission: The donors will give vital organs to others-to the population at large, to us-and the carers will attend and help them in this grievous duty. But after four donations, as a rule, the donors are “complete.” Think of four vital organs and you can see what that means, can’t you?
The Hailsham children have their small lives while growing into donor/carer status. They are schooled, in a way. They do art work, which may or may not be intended to reveal their “souls”-tricky word. They have their pacts, their quarrels and their crushes-and as they grow older, they have sex, sort of, in the way they might eat the school pudding. But Kathy-our Kath-is a bit different. It’s not just that she is the most feeling point in the triangle made up with Ruth and Tommy-I mean, she cares. She has … dreams? There’s a record she once had, a song with the lyric, “Baby, baby, never let me go.” And one day, singing that song to herself and cuddling a pillow, Kath notices that Madame (a school authority) is watching her, and weeping.
That’s a great scene, but it posits an emotional life that Mr. Ishiguro cannot quite pursue or dramatize because …. Well, because he settles for his own suspense, rather than the large ideas that are buried or suppressed in the story. And what makes the whole feel clammy, finally, is not just that the mechanics have got in the way of a more involving arc of fiction, but that Mr. Ishiguro is himself enchanted by the dulcet drip of a language that puts the soul to sleep.
So as the book ends, I daresay the reader will be full of questions that Mr. Ishiguro might have attended to. The horror in its science fiction is not exactly with us yet-certainly not in England in the late 90’s-but it’s waiting, patient, and I’m sure it’s clever enough to understand how lulling this sad song of the matter-of-fact can be. The book needs struggle, defiance, passion in these numb kids, just as we need more information all along. But Kazuo Ishiguro’s secret is fragile, and he protects it too much. The book is well worthwhile-the faintly warped portrait of “school life” and teenage hopes is brilliantly done, and there’s a love of the wan, flat countryside of some parts of England that’s steeped in melancholy. But like a lot of science fiction, this is a novel-or a hypothesis-taken beyond its own depth.
David Thomson is the author of The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood and The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, both from Knopf.