Never Let Me Go falls short of its potential

(Cross-posted from The Huffington Post.)

Note: Spoilers ahead. You may not wish to read this review if you haven’t yet read Never Let Me Go.

I feel betrayed and confused.

Parts 1 and 2 of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go are written with painstaking care, immersing us in the neurotically analytical mindset of our narrator, Kathy. Set against the backdrop of a boarding school shrouded in mystery, Kathy’s childhood is dominated by a sense of murky peripheral vision. As adult readers, we know there has to be much going on outside the narrative, but it’s revealed with an excruciating gradualness that makes the book impossible to put down. Even the narrator is in on this: she repeatedly refers to her and her friends’ trepidation at ever broaching certain mysterious subjects in conversation, such as “the Gallery” or their future “donations.” The main characters themselves are thus complicit in this conspiracy to keep us in the dark, and so we share their childlike sense of curiosity and anticipation.

Primarily, though, Parts 1 and 2 set the tone for Kathy’s lifelong frictions: her oft-strained relationship with Ruth, and her conflicted affection and concern for Ruth’s boyfriend, Tommy. Kathy looks passively to Ruth for cues, even while privately dissecting Ruth’s many pretensions and mini-betrayals. What strikes me most about Kathy’s inner dialogue is Ishiguro’s mastery in making it so real. A cassette tape cherished then lost by a child, or a teenager’s self-conscious attempts at making meaningful art, or a passive-aggressive tension between intimate friends in their mid-teens – these all weigh just as heavily in the reader’s mind as would a dramatic love affair or a murder in most novels. The fact that Ishiguro can so effectively immerse us in the struggles of teenaged (and younger) children is a testament to his skill, and it’s also what makes Part 3 so crushingly disappointing.

But I’ll get to that in a moment. Part 2 also begins developing a sense of forward movement. As Ruth seeks out her “possible,” veterans head off to training, and Tommy and Ruth conspire to have their organ donations deferred, we feel the veil of Part 1 being gradually lifted. We sense that the vaguely sci-fi elements of the story will eventually coalesce nicely with the relationship-driven narrative, and that Part 3 will explain to us why such a bizarre context was necessary for these particular inter-personal intrigues.

Part 3 starts out promisingly in this regard. As Kathy becomes Ruth’s carer, it becomes increasingly clear that their sci-fi world of clones and organ donations will serve as a vehicle to bring their tensions to a head. Given the unfamiliar dynamics of their new relationship – Ruth is physically weakened by her recent organ donation, and Kathy is charged with caring for her – there is opportunity for a dramatic realignment of their relative positions. There is an especially poignant moment toward the beginning of Part 3, in which Ruth is startled by Kathy’s unannounced presence in her bedroom: “It was like she’d been waiting and waiting for me to do something to her, and she thought the time had now come.” It would seem this fear is made possible only by Ruth’s long-repressed awareness of her treatment of Kathy over the years.

When the two of them are reunited with Tommy for the first time, and then spend the next several hours in each other’s company during their trip to see the beached boat, Ishiguro makes it clear that we will soon see the culmination of years of built-up tension between them. But he also denies us an easy resolution at first, instead entering into a tense limbo: the delicate balance of power between the three tips toward Kathy and Tommy, then Ruth, then back again multiple times.

I especially enjoyed reading Kathy’s perception of how she and Tommy, in a rare show of spiteful aggression, team up against Ruth on two separate occasions. She sees it as an almost romantic gesture as they build their own confidence off of each other’s, wondering how far they can take their newfound strength as they bully and taunt Ruth. On the second occasion – when they see a poster advertising an “open-plan office, smart smiling people,” and begin pointing out to Ruth her failure to achieve her “dream future” of working in such an office – Ruth’s powers of speech begin to fail her, and she responds to Kathy’s and Tommy’s taunts in a progressively weaker voice as Kathy finally exacts the vengeance she’s apparently been anticipating for years.

This is the precise moment at which the central tension of the narrative, so carefully constructed up to that point, begins to fall carelessly apart. Here, Ishiguro misses an opportunity for a dramatic denouement: the resolution to Kathy’s lifelong angst feels cheap, too easily won. Even when Kathy mentions Madame and Ruth’s eyes light up as if she is about to deliver a devastating response, the conflict resolves when Ruth asks for forgiveness for two specific wrongs of hers in the past.

And then it’s all over. Kathy drops off Tommy and takes Ruth back to her hospital, and all tensions have dissipated with far too much of the narrative still to come. And it’s not just that this resolution happened too early in the narrative; it also came far too easily. Within hours of their reunion as adults, Kathy has satisfied her bitterness and Ruth has been emotionally defeated. I found myself in disbelief that the climax of the book could have been come by so easily. But I comforted myself with the fact that there were still over fifty pages left to read: perhaps Ruth would rise to torment our protagonists once more. One can’t celebrate a victory, after all, unless it has been hard won.

Instead, Ishiguro casually killed Ruth off, and the remainder of the book spiraled further into disconnection from the original narrative. Now that the central tension of the book had been resolved, there was little else to do but tie up the loose ends left in the periphery of Parts 1 and 2. Kathy and Tommy visit Madame and Miss Emily to find out whether they can secure a deferral of their organ donations; and what follows is a scene of such blatantly expositional dialogue, one actually gets the impression that Ishiguro had tired of writing this particular novel, or perhaps was struggling to meet a deadline. He indulges our hard-earned curiosity all at once with Miss Emily’s page-long explanatory monologues. (As a reader, I didn’t want my curiosity rewarded that easily. I wanted to suffer along with our protagonists!) He also introduces new elements – World War II, political struggles between non-profit organizations and scientists, cultural trends that perhaps were vaguely intended to symbolize the struggle of modern human and animal rights movements – that weren’t foreshadowed earlier in the book and thus didn’t hold much weight once they were introduced.

And so I remain tormented by the question, “Just what is this book about?” It began as an investigation into the social dynamics of intensely intimate and vulnerable relationships. It concluded, I suppose, as a love story set against the backdrop of worldwide apathy to human suffering. And it appropriated elements of science fiction, which lends itself far better to the latter subject than the former. So, what is this book about? Having read it, wrestled through Kathy’s painfully relatable experiences, and debated this question extensively via ballpoint in the book’s margins, I still have no idea. Tragically, I don’t think Ishiguro does, either.