Author, Book review, England, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Kazuo Ishiguro, literary fiction, Publisher, science fiction, Setting

‘Never Let Me Go’ by Kazuo Ishiguro


Fiction – hardcover; Faber and Faber; 263 pages; 2005.

How do I review this book? I finished reading it about a month ago, but every time I try to write about it, I find myself unable to articulate my thoughts. It hasn’t helped that one particular Observer journalist declared that no one would care that Never Let Me Go had been on my TBR-list for a year or that I’d bought it as part of a discounted set of Booker novels!! (She was actually wrong, because 12 of you did care enough to leave comments!) As much as I hate to admit it, this made it more difficult to write a review that wasn’t influenced by the whole negativity of this experience…

…which isn’t entirely a bad thing, because with the passing of time I’ve been able to mull over what I really thought of the story and, quite frankly, it made me revise my star-rating down from a four-star review to a three-star review. I thoroughly enjoyed the book as I was reading it. It evoked a kind of creepy ambiance that stayed with me throughout the several days that it took me to complete the book.

However, because of the profound nature of the story, I expected it to have an impact that would last long after I reached the last page, but instead I found myself frustrated by it: there were so many unanswered questions, so many loose ends that hadn’t been tied up, so many gaps that I wanted filled. Perhaps it’s the journalist in me, but I wanted to grab Kazuo Ishiguro by the throat and scream, “why didn’t those children fight back? Why did you made them so insipid?”

The story is narrated by Kathy, an adult looking back on her idealised childhood where she, along with a group of other select children, attended Hailsham, an upmarket boarding school in the British countryside. Although it is never spelt out — Ishiguro keeps his cards close to his chest throughout the entire novel — the children are clones bred for future organ donation.

Kathy, now a carer, looks after Hailsham graduates, including two of her classmates, as they go through organ donation procedures. These “graduates” don’t just donate one-off organs, they come back repeatedly until, eventually, they “complete”, an euphemism for die.

There’s no real plot to speak of, other than Kathy recalling incidents from her past, which sounds a rather dull narrative device but works exceptionally well. This is because Ishiguro drip feeds information very slowly throughout the book, so that it is up to the reader to fill in the gaps. As you do so, the horror — and the enormous sadness — of the story begins to filter through. I found it to be a deeply disturbing and unsettling read, the mark of a strongly written story.

Ultimately Never Let Me Go belongs to the science fiction genre, even though it is set in modern times. It is quite reminiscent of the late John Wyndham’s futuristic novels, but you definitely don’t need to be a fan of science fiction to enjoy it. I liked it very much, but not enough to rave about it.

16 thoughts on “‘Never Let Me Go’ by Kazuo Ishiguro”

  1. Hi…Just let you know that the link on ‘on my TBR-list for a year’ is wrongly linked. BTW, thanks for the wonderful reviews. ūüėÄ


  2. I read this for my bookgroup this month and feel similarly to you. It was an interesting, but frustrating read. I cannot believe not one child thought to just leave Hailsham, or the Cottages. They all accepted their fate calmly without questioning it. Kathy’s calm, measured tone drove me crazy towards the end, as did Ishigaro’s constant noting of the weather during each ‘significant’ memory. However, the book has stayed in my mind and generated quite a lot of discussion, which is always a good thing! A couple of us are going to read more of his work to see if he always writes in the same style.
    (I’m another reader who is always interested in your opinions, please ignore the naysayers!)


  3. I agree with your 3 star rating. I loved every minute of the book. It hooked me and and kept me till the end. But I wanted SOOOO many more answers than were given.


  4. It’s at least a 4-star book, I reckon. The strangeness and the lack of definition are intentional. The dreamy atmosphere owes a lot to the ordinariness of the tone with which things are rendered, as well as to the slow-serve revelations that work to define the particular reality he’s describing. I thought it resembled Orwell’s Animal Farm.


  5. I too wondered for a bit why the characters didn’t rebel. BUT, part of the genius of–and terror within–this book is that they just don’t understand their situation. John Mullan captured this point in the Guardian: ‘If this were a science fiction novel, one would expect the central character to rebel, but there is never any question of that. When one of their “guardians”, Miss Lucy, appears angry about their fate, Kathy and Tommy are curious, but uncomprehending. The cleverest, saddest aspect of the novel is the limit upon their imaginings.’


  6. I wouldn’t give it more than three stars. Ishiguro left WAY too many unanswered questions. I get that he was trying to keep the whole thing shrouded in mystery, but I think he failed at that. At the ends of each chapter he gave some kind of clue that he was withholding information from the reader, but they didn’t draw me in so much as annoy me.
    As far as not fighting back, those kids remind me a lot of the butler in Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day ~ all that quiet acceptance. It kind of freaks me out.


  7. Well, you guys may disagree with my assessment of the novel, but I guarantee you that you’ll remember this book as long as you live. It is a classic.


  8. I enjoyed the review, Kim. Maybe I will buy it, in which case it will probably stay on my tbr pile for at least a year. I find the reviews of books on blogs are often have a more personal touch than those in professional publications — nothing wrong with either approach. A blog is so personal to the blogger who runs it, and she/he knows her readers pretty well and vice versa. It is much more of a two-way street. I think we all like these little personal touches on each other’s blogs, as we find out little titbits about each other. A voyage of discovery.
    On the other hand, I also like reading reviews that are more detached from the readership. I do hate it when people put up these “straw men” arguments, when really the world is big enough for a lot of different ways of doing the same thing to coexist. Isn’t this the beauty of the internet?


  9. I don’t know whether you have convinced me whether I should extricate this book from own TBR pile or not!
    Could you classify this as a should read as opposed to a must read? Is the subject matter more important than the way its told? Just a few questions! I really don’t know whether to put in the effort or not ūüôā


  10. I read this for a book club read, and I have to tell you that it provoked a lot of discussion. I had a similar feeling to you. It was so well written and compelling, but far too many loose ends!


  11. Hi! I rated it a 4/5 like you originally thought. I found it to be very peculiar and that’s what I liked about it. I agree that a little more info would have been a good thing, but the vagueness is probably what kept me intrigued.


  12. I found the vagueness evocative. Thinking about the novel as a study of free will or its lack makes it a heap more depressing (!) but also may put some of your complaints to rest. Ishiguro said that he had no interest, from the outset, in writing a novel about the triumph of the human spirit.
    I think the book can be read quite satisfactorily as science fleeing from ethics, not about a specific scienctific realm but about a society that doesn’t ask too many (or enough) questions.


  13. I thought this book was one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read. It is different than a usual storyline, but that doesn’t make is boring! Ishiguro doesn’t answer a lot of questions for a reader, that’s completely true but I thought that’s what provokes the reader to think far more deeply than if he had ‘tied up all loose ends”. I read it about 3 months ago, but i still stop and think sometimes about its theme: is cloning ethical? How would it be to know that your life is destined to save another life… To me it’s a 5 out of 5.


  14. I’m with the 4 star reviewers. I didn’t have a problem with the unanswered questions; I thought it was kind of the point. My speculation was that the clones were probably genetically engineered to be compliant – like lambs to the slaughter.


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