Vintage Canada, 2010 (c2005)
Kathy H. grew up at Hailsham, a rural English boarding school with a twist: the students are all clones destined to be organ and tissue donors, except they don't know it yet. Kathy tells her story, as well as those of her schooltime friends Ruth and Tommy, as an adult looking back at their time at Hailsham and their lives afterward.
Just below the title on the softcover copy of this book that I borrowed from a friend, a quote from TIME announces, "the best novel of the decade." I thought I was in for a treat and I was, but best novel of the decade? That's a bit much.
I believe it was the structure of Kathy's storytelling that irked me most. She would dangle an event in front of the reader like a carrot so that the event reached almost mythic proportions. Except, when it came time for her to tell what actually happened, it didn't seem such a big deal or even terribly out-of-character for whoever was involved. Especially in Part One, it seemed as if every chapter ended with a version of, "...I found out though over the next several days" (p. 48). Sometimes it wasn't addressed until many pages later (the story flips back and forth in time quite a bit), and even when it was discussed immediately the event in question was rarely a monumental occurrence. Perhaps the relationships between Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy - with all their subtleties - are what make people rave about this novel, but frankly this narrative structure annoyed me since I kept waiting for things to happen that were worthy of repeated build-up. For me, it got to the point of being an irritating gimmick.
Hands down, I found Tommy to be the most interesting and genuine character. His struggles as an adolescent and the future ramifications of those struggles were interesting to watch, and it is where I appreciated the subtleties in storytelling the most. Kathy struck me as being quite milquetoast: she put up with a lot of crap from Ruth over the years, was often afraid to ruffle any feathers despite her better judgment, and generally felt guilty when she did make waves of any sort. She was more expressive as she got older, but she was still careful. Ruth's manipulation of most of those around her for her own benefit grew tiresome, although she eventually redeems herself and realizes her folly when it's almost too late.
Perhaps due to the particular doom inevitable for the main characters, relationships they engaged in always had a certain distance to them. Kathy certainly never had what I would call a passionate relationship - friend or lover - and the relationships she describes between other characters also appeared to be reserved. I don't recall any mention of Kathy's childhood prior to Hailsham, and as a scientifically created child the existence of parental figures is highly unlikely, so the somewhat distant guardians at Hailsham were really the only adult influences in the lives of the students and even they were spooked and sometimes repulsed by their wards. The emotions one would expect from young adults were evident, but muffled in a way, which made it difficult for me to connect to the characters, emotionally demonstrative Tommy being the notable exception.
I certainly appreciate the mystery and the darkness of Never let me go. The relationships' ebbs and flows over time were poignant and realistic and its underlying question of what it means to be truly human is thoughtfully presented and never glaring. Despite my qualms with the storytelling methods (and the hyperbolic statement on the cover), Ishiguro presents a haunting visualization of the future of Western culture that provides much to contemplate.