Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Vintage Books, 2005. 288 pp. 978-0-307-74099-1.
... in which Kathy H tells the story of her childhood and young adulthood as she and her two friends form relationships and confront the frightening reality of their own fates.
Never Let Me Go (previously reviewed by Emma) tells the story of three young people (Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth) as they grow up together at an exclusive boarding school called Hailsham. The story is told through Kathy's eyes, and hopscotches through time, covering events in their childhood and adolescence at Hailsham, and events in their late teens and twenties. Kathy forms the center of the group, befriending Tommy when he was a friendless outcast and also befriending Ruth, one of the most popular girls in the school. From the beginning, it is clear that something is a little bit different in Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth's lives. As the three of them grow up and leave Hailsham, they are forced to confront the meaning of their own destinies and examine the relationships and bonds they've formed with their friends.
Anyone who has seen a trailer for the movie version of this book already knows what the big secret is, so if you really want to know, you can just watch that (I have not seen the movie myself). Also, although it's not explicitly stated until about two thirds of the way through, it's really easy to figure it out in the first quarter of the book. So, if you're the kind of person who gets impatient to find these things out, this book should not present a problem for you.
Stylistically, this book is a little bit different from the norm because Kathy, as narrator, presents the story in a somewhat stream-of-consciousness style. The story is told from the first person perspective, and it's clear that Kathy is speaking directly to someone as she tells her story; who this audience might be is left up to the reader to decide. Kathy tells her story out of order, jumping back and forth through time, as one anecdote might remind her of another anecdote that was five years earlier or ten years later. This does a lot to make Kathy seem like a real person, with a real consciousness. As Emma said in her review, not a lot happens in the book, but the story moves forward based on the strength and realness of Kathy's character and the emotional connection we feel with her.
The book explores some really interesting themes, like the idea of what makes a person a real person and what constitutes a soul. Death and mortality are obviously very central themes in the book, as is the idea that no matter how short or long your life may be, it might never feel like enough time. Although I really enjoyed seeing through Kathy's perceptive eyes, at the end I sort of felt like a lot of these interesting themes were dropped, as if Kathy herself sort of gave up and was just like, "well, whatever, I'm done thinking about this stuff." A final confrontation with a teacher from Hailsham was meant to provide answers to Kathy, but ended up making a great deal of the book feel kind of meaningless to me, while sort of damaging my already dwindling faith in humanity (not much more can be said without revealing a lot of plot points). If I was in Kathy's shoes, I am sure that at some point, I'd sort of give up and accept my fate, but as a reader, it feels sort of frustrating.
My second large complaint is that a lot of the supporting characters never felt quite real to me. Ruth is a fairly flat character, whose main traits are her narcissism and tendency to stretch the truth if it suits her. She's charming and is the natural center of attention, but she's also needy and manipulative, and at several points in the book I found myself wondering why anyone would bother being friends with her. Tommy was slightly less flat, but still came across as being kind of a caricature: goofy, lovable, and a little bit clueless until he grows up. As Tommy's relationships with Kathy and Ruth evolve over time, I found myself a little taken aback as he doesn't seem like a plausible love interest for Ruth and his romantic connection with Kathy sort of comes out of nowhere. (This doesn't count as a spoiler. First rule of dramatic stories: two girls + one guy = love triangle)
In short, I really enjoyed reading this book because of its unusual narration and the realness and emotional intimacy that Kathy brings to the story. I liked the morality and existential topics that the book hinted at, but I kind of wish they'd been explored a little more. I have a few questions I'd really like to direct to the author in terms of plot holes, and the flatness of the other two main characters took away from the story somewhat, but I would still recommend this book to most people.