‘My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years.’ These might not sound like the opening lines to a gripping, dystopian sci-fi novel, but that's why you really should know about Never Let Me Go. The subtle, almost innocuous opening gives way to a page turner that will haunt you for days after you finish it.
The novel is set across three distinct periods in Kathy's life, as she recalls the significant events and friendships that have informed who she is. We follow her from her early days as a child at Hailsham House through to her days as a young adult trying to make sense of the world and finally in her adult years where she works as a carer.
In Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro asserts himself as a master storyteller. Using Kathy as a narrator allows him to artfully control how much or how little we are told at any point. It is through her eyes that we see events unfold and it is through her that we try to make sense of the world that she and her friends inhabit.
From very early in the novel, we are left with the distinct impression that, despite many similarities, this is a world unlike our own. Kathy fondly reminisces about her time at Hailsham, the school where she and her friends Tommy and Ruth grew up; she talks of the school's focus on creativity and self-expression, of the beautiful school grounds and caring staff. At the same time, however, Kathy also hints that things are not what they seem at Hailsham. Its students are constantly being given medical examinations, smoking is considered a crime and students are terrified to leave the school grounds following a series of grisly rumours about the fates of past students who have tried.
Part of the novel's power is in what it chooses to conceal as well as in what it chooses to reveal. Kathy's style of narration plays a big part in this; talking directly to the reader as if to an old friend, she makes oblique references to 'donors' and 'completing', immediately piquing our interest and imbuing the plot with an uneasy tension. This is an artful way of drip-feeding key information to the reader and creating tension without heavy-handed exposition and without making the mysterious terminology seem crowbarred in.
The novel is intriguing in its ability to defy categorisation; it fits just as easily into the romance and drama genres as it does dystopian sci-fi. As well as exploring the more sinister aspects of the plot, Ishiguro is equally interested in examining the social structures and power dynamics of Kathy and her friends Tommy and Ruth. By telling the story across the three distinct periods of Kathy's life we get to explore how the balance of power between the three friends shifts across time. Despite the unusual world they inhabit, the depiction of the characters feels very true to life and each one feels so fleshed-out as a character that they start to resemble people you know in real life.
To say more about the plot would do the novel a disservice, as part of the joy of Never Let Me Go, is being kept guessing about the allusions Kathy makes throughout. Be warned though, Ishiguro's novel makes for a gripping read and, once started you may find it impossible to put down.
Never Let Me Go is published by Faber and Faber. You can buy the book from Amazon.