I was moved to write my thoughts on Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) after seeing that a movie version was just released. I read David Denby’s movie review in The New Yorker, and I've read several book reviews in the past, and none have talked about what I understood to be Ishiguro's central message.
First, a quick spoiler: Never Let Me Go takes place in an alternate world where the main characters are clones raised solely for their organs. Called Carers, they live a truncated life, dying in middle age as they are called upon to give up one organ at a time. The bulk of the story takes place in the past, when they were children living in a small, strange boarding school, sequestered from the world.
Reviewers of the book (and now movie) have focused on the sci-fi/thriller elements of the story – the cloning, the raising of people for organs, what Ishiguro might be saying about the future of our society and our medical industry. But this book has nothing to do with science, or the medical establishment, or problems of the future. This is a story that uses these pop-ish elements as a mere backdrop to examine human nature.
As Ishiguro did so expertly with The Remains of the Day (still one of my favorite books of all time - also a good movie but the movie is not even in the same ballpark as the book), he paints a portrait of characters seemingly lacking in “normal” affect. The most noticeable feeling you have as you read Never Let Me Go is a feeling of frustration. As the characters grow into adolescence and then into young adulthood, slowing realizing (as we realize) what is in store for them, you want to scream at their complacency. “Fight back!” you want to say. “Do something! This isn’t fair!”
But the characters accept their lot. As their destiny is slowly revealed to them over years, they spend their days embedded in rituals, in gossip, in small dramas, in petty arguments and jealous rivalry. Ishiguro weaves a realistic and placid account of their lives, so hypnotically tedious that it’s maddening when you snap to and remember what has been done to these people. This leads the reader to think, “What idiots. If it were me I’d fight back, do something. I wouldn’t just take this injustice lying down.”
Or would you?
Ishiguro is a psychological genius. Do you see what he’s done? His subtle framing of this story in such terms leads you to question the complacency with which we all (some more than others) live our lives. Aren’t all of us embedded in rituals and past-times we have never examined? How many of us are surrounded by injustice and madness that we accept as par-for-the-course on a daily basis?
I felt a similar existential claustrophobia when I finished Remains of the Day for the first time – that sense of how trapped we humans can be – by our past, by our mind, by our roles assigned, by what is expected of us. And as with that book, I felt a strong aversion to that claustrophobia – to living a life that is too defined.
Ishiguro’s mastery of language and the human mind cannot be overstated. With the unreliable narrator, which he uses in all of his books that I've read, he seems to have found the perfect narrative device for sneaking inside the mind of a reader and setting up shop there, twisting screws and loosening sockets all while the reader might be unaware of what is going on. I have read that Ishiguro is well-versed in Freudian psychology and I believe his books show this.
I am of the opinion that many people who read his books, even when they don’t see the intricate crafting that has been done, still finish the book with Ishiguro’s messages lodged in their unconscious.