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Raw emotional intensity

Print edition : Nov 04, 2005 T+T-

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro; Faber & Faber, London, 2005; pages 263; 16.99.

IN what appears to be late 20th century England, 31-year-old Kathy works as a carer, tending people through a sequence of organ-removing surgical `donations.' One day, seeking to soothe a `donor' whose third operation has gone badly wrong, Kathy happens to mention her upbringing at Hailsham, an institution whose name seems supercharged with resonances. For the dying man, Hailsham, or rather Kathy's recollection of its physical texture, its grounds and secret places, the habits and rituals of its inmates, the `big things and the little things', becomes the ultimate palliative:

"What he wanted was not just to hear about Hailsham, but to remember Hailsham, just like it had been his own childhood ... getting me to describe things to him, so they'd really sink in, so that maybe during those sleepless nights, with the drugs and the pain and the exhaustion, the line would blur between what were my memories and what were his."

Thus Kazuo Ishiguro, adroit explorer of the intricacies, tricks and byways of remembered experience, opens his sixth and latest novel. In Never Let Me Go, which has been shortlisted for the 2005 Man Booker Prize, the writer revisits themes and preoccupations that have run through his fiction: the potency of memory; the diverse ways in which people invoke and reconstruct the past to make sense of their lives; how individuals engage with loss, bereavement, hope and defeated expectations.

There are immediate parallels, in the book's rural English setting and the placid, almost mundane voice of its narrator-protagonist, with The Remains of the Day, the third novel which captured the 1989 Booker Prize and was subsequently adapted into an acclaimed film. But the reader soon becomes aware of being led into territory bleached of the `naturalism' and historical rootedness of much of Ishiguro's earlier fiction. Stevens, the butler whose past service in the employ of an aristocratic appeaser of fascism is gently unfolded in The Remains of the Day, looks back from mid-1950s England; post-War Japan forms the backdrop for of A Pale View of Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986); Christopher Banks, the detective at the centre of Ishiguro's fifth novel, When We Were Orphans (2000), stalks the streets of 1930s Shanghai.

In contrast, the setting for Ishiguro's latest novel is an enigmatic, `parallel' England whose mundane late 20th century elements - shopping centres, motorway service stations, traffic clogged roads - coexist with concepts and practices that seem to spring from a future age. "I saw it ... as an alternative history conceit," the author explained to one interviewer. "What would England look like if there had been a great biotechnology breakthrough just after the War rather than a huge breakthrough in nuclear physics?" The answer is a society living not under the threat of nuclear annihilation but with the promise of extended life. Thanks to a constantly replenished reservoir of young human clones, specifically created to `donate' their organs, the citizens of Ishiguro's brave new Britain expect to be patched up and repaired into near-eternity.

But if there are echoes here of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell (in euphemisms reminiscent of the Newspeak of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four, `donors' who die in the process of `donating' are said to have `completed'), the author does not pursue the conventional science fiction route of fleshing out his imagined society. Instead, the latter is turned into a device; it becomes a crucible or Petri dish in which Ishiguro can revisit his established themes. There is an experimental edge to this book that places it in the company of his controversial, unevenly received fourth novel The Unconsoled (1995), where a dislocated, dreamlike narrative centring on a character in the midst of chaos unfolds within an unnamed European city.

Into the crucible the author stirs three key players: Kathy, the narrator, and her two closest friends, Tommy and Ruth. We follow their interactions, as remembered by Kathy, through three distinct periods of shared experience.

THE first is their childhood at Hailsham, a boarding school apparently founded on liberal educational principles, where creativity is encouraged and lessons take place in a relaxed, anti-authoritarian atmosphere. As in other fictional boarding schools (J.K. Rowlings' Hogwarts being one of the more recent additions to the well-established genre), Hailsham children live free from parental intervention, their lives circumscribed only by quaint institutional rules and conventions and by the benign supervision of their `guardians' (teachers). There is plenty of scope for the development of friendships, and for casual cruelty. The ebb and flow of relationships; the contrasting streams of kindness and bullying; the content of conversations: all are recalled by Kathy with scalpel sharp precision. Stealthily, almost imperceptibly, the reader is made aware of a dark undertow to the narrative: that Hailsham is not what it seems, that secrets lurk beneath its surface, that the safety and security it apparently embodies are deeply compromised.

In the second part of the novel, Kathy moves on to the period when she, Tommy and Ruth, having finished their time at Hailsham, take up residence in a half-way house known as the Cottages. By this stage, the reader is in no doubt as to what lies ahead for Hailsham graduates: all will in the first instance become `carers', before moving on to the status of `donors' undergoing perhaps three or four operations before `completing'. In the half-way house, inmates make the most of a brief period in which they can lead the lives of young adults: they pair into couples, have sex, cook, chat, read, and work on research essays. Occasionally they even venture into the outside world.

The third and final section finds Kathy, now a `carer', tracing her relationship with Ruth and Tommy through its closing phase. Both her friends have become `donors', recovering from past operations in specially designated residential centres while awaiting notification of their next summons to surgery. While Kathy's narrative retains its incisiveness and apparent dispassion, the novel builds to a climax of unexpected emotional intensity.

For readers familiar with Ishiguro's work, the stratagems employed in his latest novel could be described as emblematic. As in earlier books, his protagonist engages in the process of remembering as a form of therapy, as a means to overcome or deal with loss. Recollection becomes not so much a means of recording the past as making sense of it through construction, reflection and reinterpretation. In the process, suspense is generated and intimations of dark revelations ahead infuse the narrative with potency. An example is the following passage, in which Kathy reflects on a particular moment in her childhood at Hailsham:

"Thinking back now, I can see we were just at that age when we knew a few things about ourselves - about who we were, how we were different from our guardians, from the people outside - but hadn't yet understood what any of it meant. I'm sure somewhere in your childhood, you too had an experience like ours that day: similar if not in the actual details, then inside, in the feelings. Because it doesn't really matter how well your guardians try to prepare you: all the talks, videos, discussions, warnings, none of that can really bring it home. Not when you're eight years old, and you're all together in a place like Hailsham; when you've got guardians like the ones we had; when the gardeners and the delivery men joke and laugh with you and call you `sweetheart'." (page 33)

Ishiguro keeps the focus trained on interior worlds: on characters' journeys into minds and memory, on the places they inhabit, on the detail of lived experience minutely observed. His characters are brought to life not through physical description (we are given few clues about the appearance of Kathy, Ruth or Tommy) but through the observation of emotion, the capturing of tiny shifts in body language, of the small but telling phrase. "I tell myself I'm a minimalist," Ishiguro confessed to an interviewer earlier this year. "I play to my strengths by writing quite prosaic language and getting inside narrators."

As a writer insistent on the universality of his work, Ishiguro has invited readers to view his latest novel as a metaphor for the human condition, for the brevity of life and inevitability of death. Within the crucible of his alternative England, its landscape purged of pastoral fixtures, its characters locked into tight inner worlds, he has achieved a novel whose universality is underscored and reinforced by its raw emotional intensity. Like a plaintive tune, this takes the reader by stealth, re-emerging at unexpected moments with a twist of pain to remind us all of what lies ahead.

The interview with Ishiguro referred to in the text was with Sukhdev Sandhu of The Daily Telegraph, and available online at