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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Never Let Me Go

Kazuo Ishiguro

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To purchase Never Let Me Go

Title: Never Let Me Go
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005
Length: 288 pages
Availability: Never Let Me Go - US
Never Let Me Go - UK
Never Let Me Go - Canada
Auprès de moi toujours - France
Alles, was wir geben mussten - Deutschland
Non lasciarmi - Italia
Nunca me abandones - España
  • Never Let Me Go was made into a film in 2010, directed by Mark Romanek and starring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Charlotte Rampling

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Our Assessment:

A- : well-written, if not entirely convincing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly . 5/2005 Joseph O'Neill
The Economist B 17/3/2005 .
Financial Times . 25/2/2005 Ludovic Hunter-Tilney
The Guardian . 26/2/2005 M.John Harrison
The Independent . 25/2/2005 Andrew Barrow
Independent on Sunday . 27/2/2005 Geoff Dyer
The LA Times . 10/4/2005 Richard Eder
London Rev. of Books . 21/4/2005 Frank Kermode
The New Criterion . 5/2005 Max Watman
New Statesman . 7/3/2005 Siddhartha Deb
The NY Times . 4/4/2005 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 17/4/2005 Sarah Kerr
The New Yorker . 28/3/2005 Louis Menand
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Spring/2005 Stephen Bernstein
San Francisco Chronicle . 14/4/2005 David Kipen
The Spectator D 26/2/2005 Philip Hensher
Sunday Times . 20/2/2005 Peter Kemp
The Telegraph . 6/3/2005 Caroline Moore
The Telegraph . 13/3/2005 Theo Tait
Time . 11/4/2005 Lev Grossman
The Times . 26/2/2005 Tobias Hill
TLS . 25/2/2005 Ruth Scurr
The Village Voice . 29/3/2005 James Browning
The Washington Post . 17/4/2005 Jonathan Yardley
Die Zeit . 3/11/2005 Susanne Mayer

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, though many are impressed (and even more: confused) by how he goes about it

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mr Ishiguro (...) writes such taut, emotionless sentences this time that they feel almost contrived; the language adds much to the book's sense of unreality, but also makes it hard to care much about the characters. (...) The most frustrating aspect of the novel, however, is the paradox of Hailsham's students being so expensively educated and taught to think for themselves, yet so fully accepting of their fate. (...) Thought-provoking stuff, certainly, but ultimately the style outweighs the substance." - The Economist

  • "This extraordinary and, in the end, rather frighteningly clever novel isn't about cloning, or being a clone, at all. It's about why we don't explode, why we don't just wake up one day and go sobbing and crying down the street, kicking everything to pieces out of the raw, infuriating, completely personal sense of our lives never having been what they could have been." - M.John Harrison, The Guardian

  • "Ishiguro is primarily a poet. Accuracy of social observation, dialogue and even characterisation is not his aim. In this deceptively sad novel, he simply uses a science-fiction framework to throw light on ordinary human life, the human soul, human sexuality, love, creativity and childhood innocence. He does so with devastating effect" - Andrew Barrow, The Independent

  • "The problem for the reviewer, appropriately enough, is that by revealing more of what the book is about he risks going too far and unravelling its meticulously woven fabric of hints and guesses. So I'll leave it there. Suffice it to say that this very weird book is as intricate, subtly unsettling and moving as any Ishiguro has written." - Geoff Dyer, Independent on Sunday

  • "(T)he texture of the writing becomes altogether less interesting, and this may be a reason why the novel seems to be, though only by the standards Ishiguro has set himself, a failure." - Frank Kermode, London Review of Books

  • "Ishiguro’s world can grab no one by the throat, because it is not real. It would have been more effective, for instance, if we learned that all these characters interacting on the page were cows." - Max Watman, The New Criterion

  • "His attention remains fixed on intimate things - on the small social groupings within a school, on the nuances of personal relationships. The larger world remains a distant, blurred backdrop, and is brought into focus only at the end. What holds our attention before then is the way Ishiguro uses the subject of cloning to focus on questions of human existence." - Siddhartha Deb, New Statesman

  • "Like the author's last novel (When We Were Orphans), Never Let Me Go is marred by a slapdash, explanatory ending that recalls the stilted, tie-up-all-the loose-ends conclusion of Hitchcock's Psycho. The remainder of the book, however, is a Gothic tour de force that showcases the same gifts that made Mr. Ishiguro's 1989 novel, The Remains of the Day, such a cogent performance." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "The theme of cloning lets him push to the limit ideas he's nurtured in earlier fiction about memory and the human self; the school's hothouse seclusion makes it an ideal lab for his fascination withcliques, loyalty amd friendship." - Sarah Kerr, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The strangeness, like the strangeness in Ishiguro’s most imaginative novel, The Unconsoled, is ingeniously evoked -- by means of literal-minded accounts of things that don’t quite add up -- and teasing out the hidden story is the main pleasure of the book. (...) Unfortunately, Never Let Me Go includes a carefully staged revelation scene, in which everything is, somewhat portentously, explained. It’s a little Hollywood, and the elucidation is purchased at too high a price. The scene pushes the novel over into science fiction, and this is not, at heart, where it seems to want to be." - Louis Menand, The New Yorker

  • "(A) powerful and sad narrative. Ishiguro’s -- and Kathy’s -- brave new world is one whose lingering implications we will do well to take to heart." - Stephen Bernstein, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "For the meantime, reading Never Let Me Go is like attending the bedside of an organ transplant patient forever on the verge of rejecting. We yearn for the science fiction and romantic aspects of Ishiguro's story to match and thrive. We want desperately for it to work, but somehow, in spite of all that, it never quite takes." - David Kipen, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The result, alas, is a novel quite without vulgarity, but one where the situation is totally implausible on every level. It is an awful thing to say, but I believed so little in any of the people, their situation, or the way they spoke that I didn’t really care what happened to them. They could have been turned into tins of Pedigree Chum without raising much concern. In the past, Ishiguro has been an exceedingly interesting novelist, but he looks increasingly like one at the mercy of his limited linguistic inventiveness." - Philip Hensher, The Spectator

  • "A clear frontrunner to be the year's most extraordinary novel (.....) Graceful and grim, the novel never hardens into anything as clear-cut as allegory but it resonates with disquieting suggestiveness." - Peter Kemp, Sunday Times

  • "Never Let Me Go is an intriguing, chilling and ultimately desolate fable. (...) Never Let Me Go will probably disappoint readers for whom the solution of a mystery is all-in-all, or those who want the gratification of full-on horror. But in its evocation of a pervasive menace and despair almost but not quite lost in translation - made up of the shadows of things not said, glimpsed out of the corner of one's eye - the novel is masterly." - Caroline Moore, The Telegraph

  • "Never Let Me Go is a very strange novel. (...) Inevitably, reading Never Let Me Go is not exactly an enjoyable experience. There is no aesthetic thrill to be had from the sentences -- except that of a writer getting the desired dreary effect exactly right. But the novel repays the effort in spades, building to a surprisingly moving climax and echoing around the brain for days afterwards." - Theo Tait, The Telegraph

  • "Never Let Me Go could easily be mistaken for a political novel or a futuristic thriller, but at its dark heart it's an existential fable about people trying to wring some happiness out of life before the lights go out. " - Lev Grossman, Time

  • "This spare approach to description is also one of the most striking qualities of Ishiguro’s prose, and his tendency to cut back -- to foreshorten his characters’ horizons -- has become more marked than ever. Here, the austere minimalism of description becomes meaningful. (...) Meaningful though it is, the lack of description in Never Let Me Go is oppressive, and it is questionable whether Ishiguro intends the novel to come across quite so severely as it does." - Tobias Hill, The Times

  • "Never Let Me Go takes the subject of mortality to a vivid extreme. (...) The beauty in this novel must be carefully distinguished from its power to distress. Ultimately, there is a connection: the depth and quality of the relationships between Kath, Tommy and Ruth certainly accentuate the cruelty of their deaths. From under the shadow of their fate, Ishiguro draws warmly compelling vignettes of love and friendship that cumulatively establish an urgent and engrossing narrative pace." - Ruth Scurr, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The death sentence that is Hailsham can for much of the book only be read between the lines, and as in Ishiguro's five previous novels, horror lies in the mundane. (...) A 1984 for the bioengineering age, the novel is a warning and a glimpse into the future whose genius will be recognized as reality catches up." - James Browning, The Village Voice

  • "(Q)uite wonderful (...) the best Ishiguro has written since the sublime The Remains of the Day. It is almost literally a novel about humanity: what constitutes it, what it means, how it can be honored or denied." - Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Never Let Me Go is set in: "England, late 1990s", but it's a slightly different country from the one we're familiar with (and most of the action described takes place earlier). There's not much history or background, but the premise of the book is that things took a slightly different turn a while back. In particular, some medical-biological advances decades ago have led to a different kind of society on some levels.
       The book is narrated by Kathy H., now thirty-one, who introduces herself as a "carer". The novel is divided into three part: she tells first of her schooldays at Hailsham (a telling enough name right there), then her first year or so away from the school, and then finally recounts more recent events.
       The book begins much like many nostalgic looks back at childhood and school, though Kathy and her friends aren't like all the other kids, and Hailsham isn't your usual educational institution. From the beginning there's mention of "carers" and "donors" and all the kids have no family and soon its pretty clear what's going on here. Ishiguro only slowly fills in the actual pieces, but he neatly has Kath describe what it's like to be one of these kids, the knowledge that's pretty much always there, but the details no one really speaks about:

I suppose it was because even at that age -- we were nine or ten -- we knew just enough to make us wary of that whole territory. It's hard now to remember just how much we knew by then. We certainly knew -- though not in any deep sense -- that we were different from our guardians, and also from the normal people outside; we perhaps even knew that a long way down the line there were donations waiting for us. But we didn't really know what that meant. If we were keen to avoid certain topics, it was probably more because it embarrassed us.
       One guardian does spell it out for them (and the readers) eventually:
None of you will go to America, none of you will be film stars. And none of you will be working in supermarkets as I heard some of you planning the other day. Your lives are set out for you. You'll become adults, then before you're old, before you're even middle-aged, you'll start to donate your vital organs. That's what each of youw as created to do.
       Such blunt words surprise neither the children nor the reader: it's been in the air all along. Fairly realistically, the children aren't too eager to explore the implications of their inevitable destiny. For the reader it's a slightly different matter: Ishiguro posits a brave new world of sorts, but gives very few details. A bit of an explanation comes near the end of how it came to this, but this world itself remains largely a blank. More significantly, the donors' resignation to their fates is presented pretty much as a given: some hope to get deferrals, a bit of extra time, but they're all ready to make the expected (and eventually fatal) sacrifices. (Ishiguro's creepiest invention is the euphemism for death: the donors are said to have "completed" when they're done, as if they've merely finished a task rather than done something as human as died.)
       Ishiguro is a master of tone, and Kath's narrative is convincing, from her (admittedly very unusual) point of view. Much of it is a nostalgic look at schooldays, an attempt to recreate both a magical lost world (and by the end Hailsham really is literally lost, though Kath often thinks she sees bits and pieces of it) and yet also illuminate all the dark foreshadowings already present there. Kath tells the story of her friendships, especially with Ruth and Tommy, and the childish manipulations and games that went on. She is deliberate and careful in her reconstruction of events, sounding them for their significance, wondering at the things she missed or wished she'd done differently.
       Ishiguro nicely presents this sense of otherness: like others who live in isolated circumstances, with limited exposure to the world at large, Kath and her friends seem slightly retarded or off -- not less intelligent (or manipulative) than 'normal' human beings, but strangers in a strange world that they don't quite fit in. The lack of interaction with the 'real' world, i.e. with people not of their kind, is remarkable -- though once they are grown (and especially once Kath is a carer) there must be considerably more interaction, which Ishiguro largely avoids discussing.
       The power of the book lies in the contrast of normalcy and the horrible fates that await these characters. Kath and her friends are like most any other children and then young adults, with similar concerns and problems (friendship, sex, betrayal), but all the while their inevitable fate hangs over them. It's unsettling, and with his sure-voiced (if not always truly confident) narrator, describing what generally seems like an almost everyday upbringing in just slightly unusual circumstances, Ishiguro holds the reader's attention. Yet it's not entirely satisfactory: rebellion against their fate is limited to a hope for a deferral of the inevitable, with love and art (supposedly so revealing) as what they think they can pin their hopes on. This different world -- in which, it is repeatedly mentioned, Hailsham occupies a special place -- remains very vague, the other ... breeding institutions or whatever they might be never described (and, curiously, Kath never seems to ask others of her kind from elsewhere what their upbringing was like). And the world at large, in which it's apparently an everyday occurrence to carve up these living organ replacement machines for their body-parts, is also not really described very satisfactorily. (Admittedly, when Ishiguro gets around to explaining, at the very end, it doesn't work very well either, feeling too much like a tacked-on explanation.)
       Ishiguro does resignation very well, and ultimately they're all resigned to their fates. (Even the normal human beings are dreadfully resigned throughout the book). Kath's explanations and descriptions, of first Ruth and then Tommy's adult lives, seem convincing enough (her description of Tommy's later art-attempts, in particular, are effective), but it's hard to believe that no one wouldn't try to even just run away. What feints at rebellion there are are simply too simple.
       Impressively creepy and unsettling, Never Let Me Go falls slightly short in never managing to be truly convincing about the world in which it is set. The small scenes, and the stories of these individuals -- focussed so often on the seemingly trivial and everyday --, are impressive, but the big picture in which it is set isn't believable enough.

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Never Let Me Go: Reviews: Never Let Me Go - the film: Kazuo Ishiguro: Other books by Kazuo Ishiguro under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Japan in 1954 and moved to Great Britain when he was five. He won the Booker Prize for his novel The Remains of the Day, has received an OBE, and was named Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In 2017, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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