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Near the close of the 1990s, Kathy H., 31, reflects back on her days at Hailsham, an idyllic boarding school/orphanage in the English countryside. As Kathy rifles through her childhood memories, we realize that something’s amiss. The Hailsham students have guardians who nurture them and maintain order, but allow the older ones to engage freely in sexual relations. While the students embrace art, drama, and music, they lack love from adults, wear hand-me-downs, and rarely leave estate grounds.

Kathy slowly reveals how, in this environment, she and her friends came to understand their bizarre origins and even stranger destiny. Although the guardians gradually reveal the purpose of their lives to them—and Kathy, in turn, slowly leaks the truth to us as she grapples with her memories—the force of their predetermined lives never hits them directly.

Kathy’s growing consciousness of her distinct role in society reflects our concurrent awakening to Hailsham’s dark secrets. In Ishiguro’s dystopian society, a runaway belief in scientific progress has overpowered ethics, and technology has robbed a unique group of personal freedoms—and possible humanity.
Knopf. 294 pages. $24. ISBN: 1400043395

Critical Themes

A dawning truth: A few critics spilled the beans, but most withheld plot-related information that could spoil the entire book. It is "a novel of discovery, of hints and disclosures, the subtle unfolding of a reality that the narrator takes for granted," writes the San Jose Mercury News. Most critics, even those who felt compelled to withhold details, enjoyed Ishiguro’s stealthy approach. By circling around the characters’ fate, Ishiguro "pushes us to begin to accept it by default as well" (Christian Science Monitor). Don’t fret—you’ll know everything by page 80 or so.

Sociology 101: Hailsham’s students, literally orphaned from outside society, represent the ways in which modern people submit to social norms, no matter how restrictive. Somewhat inexplicably, "[n]o one ever bolts … or even considers it," writes The Boston Globe. A few critics turned the 20th-century-alienation-of-the-individual-from-society on its head, noting that in Ishiguro’s alternate world, technological and economic power amplifies "the alienation of society from the individual" (Los Angeles Times).

A soulful dystopia: As becomes clear, Kathy and her friends Ruth and Tommy are part of a larger project. Yet in their capacity to create and love, they’re still human. Late in the book an old Hailsham headmistress explains to Kathy that, "We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all."Part mystery, part Gothic horror, and part sci-fi in its exploration of humanness, Never Let Me Go resembles George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, and Hanif Kureishi’s The Body.

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s a special, haunting novel, and, I’d argue, the greatest achievement of an already distinguished career. … And though at times Ishiguro’s writing here is so chilling and elegant that you almost have the feeling that Philip K. Dick has hijacked the brain of E.M. Forester, Never Let Me Go is never a polemic about science ..." Brad Zellar

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"What’s interesting here is that [the characters] do form friendships and attachments, but never with intensity or passion. … It’s disturbing, mesmerizing, thought-provoking." Debra Bruno

Detroit Free Press 4 of 5 Stars
"… Ishiguro’s fabulous new novel is all about secrets and how they are discovered. … Ishiguro lets the smallest events of his story build up against his characters’ innocence, until they finally have to believe the truth." Marta Salij

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"... Ishiguro draws three extraordinary portraits, clouded and distorted but with a humanity that proclaims sorrow more universal than that of their particular grisly fates. As their ends approach, their voices grow lucid and powerful." Richard Eder

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The result, amazingly enough, is not the lurid thriller the subject matter might suggest. … So subtle is Mr. Ishiguro’s depiction of this alternate world that it never feels like a cheesy set from The Twilight Zone, but rather a warped but recognizable version of our own." Michiko Kakutani

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"Never Let Me Go poses a simple question: What do we gain by doctoring our memories if, in the end, death claims us all? … It’s hard not to finish with this haunting image in mind: Kathy in her dorm room, listening over and over to the song that gives the book its title." John Freeman

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"Never Let Me Go seems a natural project for Ishiguro, drawing on his remarkable ability to render the lives of characters that are circumscribed by the station into which they were born, as he did with British servants in The Remains of the Day. … a page-turner that also jogs the brain, written in deceptively transparent prose that ultimately reveals Ishiguro’s masterful design." Jenny Shank

San Jose Mercury News 4 of 5 Stars
"Though Ishiguro draws the reader into his novel by dangling a series of puzzles to solve—the search for the reality behind what Kathy H. tells us so obliquely—those narrative enigmas are only superficial. Once you’ve solved the puzzle of what’s happening, you return to the novel for the far more rewarding task of figuring out why." Charles Matthews

Denver Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Ishiguro’s euphemisms control the flow of information given to the reader. … In this novel, Ishiguro reminds readers to examine what makes up one’s life." Cynthia Wong

Miami Herald 3 of 5 Stars
"… this taut, melancholy novel is booby-trapped with hot flares …"
Margaria Fichtner

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 3 of 5 Stars
"Mysterious? That’s exactly Ishiguro’s intent. … What is puzzling all along is that even as adults, [the characters] accept the status quo, even while knowing that it is terribly detrimental to their health and will lead to their demise." Jean Charbonneau

Boston Globe 2 of 5 Stars
"The heartbreak is that of a child’s, piercing and transient, but the overriding premise to this novel undermines its sentimental tugs and renders it an exercise in Gothic gloom." Gail Caldwell

Critical Summary

Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy come to terms with their destinies as Never Let Me Go slowly unveils its secrets to readers. Not before, not after—though readers may return to certain passages after experiencing the "a-ha!" moment that’s sure to come. Many of Ishiguro’s works have a purposeful ambiguity to their plots, but his sixth novel’s play on memory, experience, and design may be the strangest yet. Despite its Twilight Zone-meets-Kafka sensibility, Never Let Me Go is heartbreaking, powerful, and chillingly possible.

The title, taken from a folk song Kathy imagines to be about an infertile woman’s miracle baby, suggests the novel’s troubling themes: how we define human, accept our station in life, forge a better future for some of us, and interpret memories. Answers surface slowly in the alternative reality Ishiguro pieces together from Kathy’s distorted recollections. His approach is deceptively simple; each tightly controlled piece of information contributes to a portrait of an ethically questionable society. As Ishiguro explained to London’s Daily Telegraph, the novel "offers a version of Britain that might have existed by the late 20th century if just one or two things had gone differently on the scientific front."

While a few critics questioned the characters’ acceptance of conditions they might have challenged, others assumed the system Ishiguro introduced precluded even pondering escape. In fact, a few found this world more interesting than the characters themselves. If some thought the scientific/technological premise polemical, others considered it highly provocative. In this age of major scientific debate over the future of humankind, Never Let Me Go will captivate you.