Kazuo Ishiguro's disturbing new novel asks what it really means to be man, writes
Never Let Me Go
By Kazuo Ishiguro Faber & Faber 263pp, $29.95
There is something decidedly odd about Kazuo Ishiguro's novels, even The Remains of the Day, his best-known book. The nature of this oddity is difficult to pinpoint but it is, by and large, a matter of tone and perspective.
Things are never quite right in Ishiguro's world. The way his characters speak often strikes a slightly off-key note. How he describes places - whether the ordinary and, at times, featureless English countryside of this new novel or the London and Shanghai of the 1930s in When We Were Orphans and the dream-Europe of The Unconsoled - brings to mind the way Magritte endowed commonplace things (a pipe, a fireplace) with mysterious menace.
This characteristic of Ishiguro's work may have something to do with his background. He was born in Nagasaki in 1954. In 1960, his parents moved to England but always intended to return to Japan. So their son was encouraged, like Akira in When We Were Orphans, to preserve his Japanese identity. But he stayed in England and learnt how to be English, even though a trace of a cultural accent still remains.
That unusual Englishness is evident from the start of this peculiar but impressive novel. The time is the late 1990s. Kathy H. describes her life as a highly esteemed carer in the unemphatic language of middle-class England: "I'm not making big claims for myself. I know carers, working now, who are just as good and don't get half the credit." There's a hint of snobbery, too. Kathy mentions that she was a Hailsham student, "which is enough by itself sometimes to get people's backs up". Soon, in a predictably English way, she's off recalling her near-idyllic
schooldays deep in the English countryside.
Yet even the opening pages of Never Let Me Go are filled with ambiguous implications, vague hints, a sense that there is something abnormal lurking behind this unremarkable world. What is Hailsham? Who are the "donors" Kathy looks after? What is the "fourth donation" she mentions several times? And what will become of her when she ceases to be a carer?
It takes Ishiguro about 70 pages, to lift the veil hanging over the opening section of his novel. Kathy and her fellow students at Hailsham, among them Ruth, her best friend, and the volatile Tommy, have been genetically manipulated for a sinister purpose.
Never Let Me Go plays sophisticated and unsettling variations on a venerable tradition of dystopian horror stories. Indeed, one of the climactic scenes takes place in the time-honoured setting of many horror stories: a gloomy, forbidding house.
Nevertheless, the menacing atmosphere of this novel emerges far more from the terrible ordinariness of the world it describes: late-20th-century England with all its foggy dampness, its cosy, rather smug sense of propriety, shabby towns and villages, junk shops and tawdry supermarkets, garish advertising hoardings and mindless TV shows.
Undeniably, this is a gimmicky novel and that is something of a limitation. But beneath the carefully calculated revelations, this is a touching and even profound meditation on a riddle many of us prefer to ignore: what is it to be human? That is the conundrum the students of Hailsham, all predestined to follow the same path, must face. To follow them along that path is, as I have suggested, an unsettling though ultimately exhilarating experience.
Never Let Me Go - the title refers to a (perhaps fictional) pop song of the early '70s - marks Ishiguro's return to form after When We Were Orphans, one of those messy, spectacular disasters that only the most accomplished writers can produce.
What is more, it seems to me that with this memorable and disturbing work Ishiguro was revisiting the central concern of that earlier book: these orphans' sad search, if not for their parents, then at least for their true origins. And, of course, that search confirms the humanity of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, the carers and donors at the heart of this strange novel.
This review first appeared in Sydney Morning Herald
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