Outrageous Game

Frank Kermode

  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
    Faber, 263 pp, £16.99, March 2005, ISBN 0 571 22411 3

All of Kazuo Ishiguro’s six novels are first-person narratives. For the most part the voices of these narrators are quiet, civilised, rather formal. This is so whether the speaker is the obsessive butler of the most famous of the books, The Remains of the Day (1989); or one of the somewhat demented heroes of The Unconsoled (1995) or When We Were Orphans (2000); or the Japanese, guilty or exiled, of the first two books, A Pale View of Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986). Indeed this way of speaking seems appropriate to Japanese conversation, to the talk of a society in which manners are always important, and in which they might sometimes take precedence over candour. The characters do a lot of deferring and apologising, and even when they aren’t expressly said to be bowing gently to one another you can easily imagine they are.

This new book, Never Let Me Go, is different in one respect: it does have a first-person narrative but abandons the formality of the previous speakers in favour of a familiar, chatty style no doubt thought right for the character of a young woman of the place and date specified, namely ‘England, late 1990s’. Whatever the virtues of this authorial decision, the 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. I open it quite at random and read the first sentences to meet my eye:

What with one thing and another, I didn’t get a chance to talk to Tommy for the next few days. Then one lunchtime I spotted him on the edge of the South Playing Field practising his football . . . I went over and sat down on the grass behind him, putting my back against a fence post. This couldn’t have been long after that time I’d shown him Patricia C’s calendar and he’d marched off, because I remember we weren’t sure how we stood with each other.

The story, slightly science-fictional but set in the recent past, is told by a woman 31 years old and looking back to the time between the present and her adolescence. Everything is expertly arranged, as it always is in Ishiguro, but this dear-diary prose surely reduces one’s interest.

We begin in a strange school where the pupils, though kindly and intelligently treated by their ‘guardians’, are quite cut off from the rest of the world. The guardians are severe only on the subject of health, and particularly on smoking. Perhaps by way of compensation the boys and girls don’t have the usual adolescent worries about sex: the girls can’t conceive and so the guardians leave the young people to get on with it, merely warning them about disease and advising them that sex can have difficult emotional consequences.

Indeed sex, though they sometimes want it quite badly, usually amounts to little more than a way of being friends, or practising for more serious partnerships later on. Instead of fantasising about it they construct a mythology of rumours about other things – about the lives of the guardians or the activities of certain mysterious benefactors, or the unusual conditions that will prevail in their later lives.

When they are told they have been conceived and hatched as clones, they have that sense familiar from sex education classes – that they already knew, that they’d somehow heard the news before without taking it in. They had been given existence solely that they might serve as depositories of anatomical spare parts for surgical use. Now they develop a version, appropriate to their condition, of the family romance: a futile curiosity about the model or source from which they were cloned. On leaving the rather idyllic life of their school – a sort of clones’ Bryanston – they become either ‘donors’ or the ‘carers’ charged with looking after the donors, who rarely manage to make more than three ‘donations’ before they ‘complete’.

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