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Never Let Me Go.jpg

Cannonball Read III: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

By Tits McGee | Books | March 10, 2011 |

By Tits McGee | Books | March 10, 2011 |

I’ve made minor changes to this review, so that there could be no accusations of “spoilering.”—TU

Like many other Cannonball readers, I picked Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro for my inaugural read in January. This decision meant that I found myself on an airplane flying somewhere between Vancouver and Costa Rica curled over wet pages, crying as quietly as I could manage. For me, this novel was powerful without being triumphant or depressing, and I was floored.

Never Let Me Go follows the story of 3 students at Hailsham, a secluded boarding school in England. The school, at first, seems like any other boarding school. However, Ishiguro deftly reveals the differences between Hailsham and the rest of the world and the reader learns what makes Hailsham special slowly, at the same pace as the students.

As the story progressed, I found myself in awe of the precision and intent of the author. This world mirrors so closely the bittersweet memories of adolescence, and I found it easy to identify some aspect of each of the characters in my own adolescence. Every small betrayal, every whispered secret and stifled giggle, seemed rooted in a very real, very possible world. Even the larger plot around who and what the students are seemed possible. In fact, considering how good we all are at justifying and closing our eyes to injustices that are carefully and quietly occurring to someone else, it seems possible, even probable that schools like this could exist.

One of the things that makes this book so special is that the characters never make a decision that they wouldn’t naturally make. The characters don’t follow the plot, the plot follows the characters and this is something that is becoming too rare in a world where books are written with the intent of being made into a blockbuster. I believed that [this character] would betray [that character] and that [that character], unasked, would forgive [the first character], even help her. That [the first character] would eventually make things right and that [another character] would make the wrong decisions, then the right one, and then ones that I wasn’t so sure about. I believed that the teachers would try and then fail, but still make things somewhat palatable. I believed that the other character, the outside world, would stiffen at the sight of these children. That it would turn its back and shut its eyes.

There is no room for heroics, or easy answers in Ishiguro’s world. While I found myself praying to the literary gods that someone would show up and play this role, it would have done the story a great disservice. Instead, the author opted for quiet heroes and small triumphs, and this makes the story all the more powerful. It isn’t about the heroes, it’s about how these children grow up, how they live their lives and how they come to terms with their purpose and even find happiness within the constraints that they are given.

The narrative flow is beautifully constructed. The author shifts back and forth between the past and the present without making the reader feel pulled through time. Ishiguro managed to construct a first-person narrative that carries the reader through a typical awkward adolescence to a tarnished adulthood. Given that the book has been made into a movie and that the premise is hinted at towards the beginning of the novel, the reader likely knows more about the characters’ lives than the characters do, which makes it all the more painful and poignant as the characters start to realize their purpose and how little power they actually have over the path of their own lives.

While Ishiguro plays with some very heavy and sad themes, he never dives into despair, though he could easily have taken this route. He chooses to write about Hailsham rather than the other boarding schools with similar students where the conditions were much worse. He chooses a main character who is resilient and capable, instead of one who would weaken and fall apart with the realization of their purpose, or one who would attempt heroics and fail dramatically. Ishiguro has written a novel that in the hands of inferior talent would become either depressing or unrealistically triumphant, and by dancing somewhere in between, I believe he has created a classic.

I wish I could find something to criticize, but this novel has earned a permanent spot on my bookshelf, and I suspect that high school English students will be writing book reports on this novel for some time to come.

For more of Tits McGee’s reviews, check out the Cannonball Read III blog. And while you’re there, check out the other reviews of Never Let Me Go, which, as Tits McGee pointed out, has been a popular book with the Cannonballers.

This review is part of Cannonball Read III. For more info, click here

This book was made into a movie, which came out last year. You can check out Prisco’s review here. Warning! There are spoilers there in case you want to read the book.

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