I finally finished Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro the other day. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a novel about an alternate reality set in England where you follow the personal reflections of Kathy, recalling her life, where she grew up in a boarding school. The following won’t spoil what happens in the book but will talk about some of the mechanics that lead up to the main conflict, so if you want to read it at some point and avoid diving in, feel free to skip this edition.
The book starts you off with a feeling of unease, but something that you can’t quite place your finger on. Kathy is writing in the present day as a carer and talking about the ones she cared for who didn’t make it. Abruptly we shift to her childhood memories of growing up in an elite boarding school where the children are required to produce art and cultivate other creative pursuits as their only work. This cultivates a social dynamic where the children who are more creative are more popular and known. With a fake money system from the school, their only possessions are these creative works that they buy from their classmates (along with items from a sale of second-hand miscellaneous goods brought in from the outside). As we follow Kathy’s innocent, winding, innocuous recollections of her time at the boarding school, highlighting the dramas that mattered to her at that time, this sense of unease runs as a constant undercurrent in our minds. Perhaps we start to wonder about their parents and why they’re confined to the school. We start to wonder about the “guardians” and what their roles are. We start to wonder what happens on “graduation” and why the art is so crucial. Because it’s told from the perspective of a teenage girl, some of the bits can feel dry as she recalls the tribulations of everyday life, but this undercurrent of dread and confusion keeps us going.
I’m reminded of Burning, the film adaption of a Murakami novel by Lee Chang-dong. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it for you, but suffice it to say that the movie follows its namesake by stoking this slow undercurrent burn of unease that explodes to a peak towards the end. Never Let Me Go doesn’t have quite as dramatic of an explosive moment where everything comes to culmination like that, but as you slowly uncover the clues and bits of truth, you start to follow just to see how Kathy’s opinion and worldview will change. As you discover the true purpose of the children, you’re caught between focusing on the relationships with Kathy and Tommy and Ruth and the systems at play that have cultivated this kind of world. Perhaps that’s one of the most central dynamics of the book, to demonstrate their innate humanness through this focus on their relationship all the while showing that they live in a world where they are less than human to everyone else.
The slow burn is us trying to escape the fantastical worlds where good defiantly triumphs over evil or the world is doomed. Instead, we slowly come to terms with the fact that evilness is a slow, boring, natural process of entropy. We grow to intimately identify with Kath’s growing resignation towards the matter and become frustrated on her behalf. We try to thrash against the natural order, but of course, as readers, we are powerless to stop things from going to their pre-determined end. Perhaps the feeling we encounter throughout the book that gives us the most rage is the pity. The “you poor things” (literally because they are not considered humans) attitude reeks of the elitist “you only got so far because we gave you the opportunity to” persona, and we instinctively lash out in defense of our innocent narrator. The lesson seems to be to make a difference while we can, to fight to bring goodness into the world in our every day, to rage against the dying of the light even when it seems inconvenient or pointless, because we’ll be thankful we did if it ever comes to rest for good.
This is the 12th installment in my experiment of publishing raw, lightly edited mini-essays every day towards achieving 100 public pieces. Check out the rationale and the full list here.