Never Let Me Go
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by Kazuo Ishiguro
In an era of exuberantly descriptive novelists like Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer, there is something eerily spare about Kazuo Ishiguro's fiction. The sentences are so uncluttered, the emotions so understated, the physical details so sparse that one might be tempted to compare his prose to a Zen garden. But this surface tranquility is deceptive. Instead of inspiring transcendence, the empty spaces in his novels function as echo chambers, amplifying his frequently disturbing themes.
Such is the case with Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro's newest book. As with his 1989 novel, The Remains of the Day, the story takes place in a pastoral English setting. This time, the central characters are not butlers and maids but young people enjoying a peaceful childhood at a boarding school called Hailsham. That these children happen to be clones, and that they were brought into existence solely for the purpose of donating their internal organs, seems at first to be almost beside the point. The narrator, Kathy H., tells her tale without any trace of bitterness or rage. Instead, the story unfolds gently: girlhood crushes, afternoon meetings by the pond, leisurely drives down pleasant English roads. The reader must consciously take a step backward to realize why these events are accompanied by a vague sense of horror.
Ishiguro's penchant for playing with settings makes his stories all the more unsettling. When he writes about his native Nagasaki, as he did in his first two novels, A Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World, one has the feeling that the story is taking place in a kind of "alternative" Japan, one that never really existed despite any number of historically accurate details. The same is true of the English settings in Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, a Booker Prize-winning book that gave rise to a Merchant Ivory film. The characters and the landscape in both books are recognizably British, but in each case, there are elements that don't quite add up, a peculiar blend of fantasy and realism that leaves the reader wondering how much of the strangeness is in his or her own mind.
It's easy to attribute at least some of this otherworldliness to Ishiguro's background. Born in Japan in 1954, he arrived in England at the age of six and spent the rest of his childhood in the town of Guildford. His father, an oceanographer, always intended to move the family back home, but it never quite happened. As a result, Ishiguro grew up English almost by accident. The various places he and his family have lived—Nagasaki, Shanghai, the English countryside—make frequent appearances in his fiction, but always with a sense of distance, as though they were metaphors instead of physical locations.
In Never Let Me Go, that symbolism is more overt than usual. The quiet seaside county of Norfolk becomes a magical place where every lost object will one day be found. The quintessentially English boarding school, with its wide green lawns and matronly "guardians," later disappears into an Avalon-like mist, never to be located again. Even when the children are at their happiest and most innocent, there are always subtle reminders that nothing in their world can be taken at face value.
One pivotal scene presents Kathy H. as an eleven-year-old girl listening to her favorite song: a fictional tune from 1956 called "Never Let Me Go." Dancing around the room, holding a pillow to her chest, she looks up to find that a mysterious European woman whom she knows only as Madame is standing in the doorway watching her:
She was out in the corridor, standing very still, her head angled to one side to give her a view of what I was doing inside. And the odd thing was that she was crying. It might even have been one of her sobs that had come through the song to jerk me out of my dream.... She was the adult, and she should have said or done something, even if it was just to tell me off. Then I'd have known how to behave. But she just went on standing out there, sobbing and sobbing, staring at me through the doorway with that same look in her eyes she always had when she looked at us, like she was seeing something that gave her the creeps. Except that this time there was something else, something extra in her look that I couldn't fathom.
Ishiguro's writing voice has been described as "studiedly anonymous," as though he has made a special point of telling stories in a quizzically detached way. In conversation, however, he is cheerful and engaging, happy to share personal reflections on everything from his Japanese childhood to his newfound admiration for Jane Austen. He spoke to me on March 24 from his home in North London.
You just returned yesterday from New York, where you were working on a film project. Can you tell me a bit about it?
The film is called The White Countess. It's directed by James Ivory and stars Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, and many other members of the Redgrave family—Natasha Richardson's mother, Vanessa Redgrave, and her aunt, Lynne Redgrave, are also in it. It was shot entirely on location in Shanghai. I think it's looking terrific, like a kind of epic.
You wrote this story specifically for the screen, is that correct?
That's right. It's an original screenplay, one that James Ivory and I developed over a number of years. When we started it, seven or eight years ago, we didn't see it as a film set in China at all. But at a certain stage I wanted to abandon the thing we were working on, and I proposed that we focus on a story only faintly related to the one we'd started off with, one I could see in my head—set in Shanghai in the 1930s.
Shanghai in the 1930s was also the setting of your last book, When We Were Orphans. Why is that particular time and place so vivid for you?
Well, I'm not obsessed with that period. What happened is that I'd researched Shanghai of that time quite thoroughly for When We Were Orphans, and I had a lot of leftover material. This film particularly concerns the White Russian refugees who escaped from the Russian Revolution and settled in Shanghai, living in great poverty. You had all these Russian aristocrats working as prostitutes or bouncers in nightclubs, because they had no citizenship status in China. I wanted to write a story about them.
I should also say that my father was born in Shanghai in 1920, and he grew up there. My grandfather was the head of Toyota for Shanghai, which was then a textiles company. I've always been fascinated with that city as it was when my family lived there—what you would call the Old Shanghai, which disappeared forever once the Second World War and then the Communist Revolution came. It was a very cosmopolitan, decadent city, a kind of prototype for the international cities we have now like New York or London.