June 14, 2005

BOOKS: Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

This is a hard book to talk about, because there's a lot that should be left for the reader to discover (all of the reviews I've seen have given away far too much), so this attempt to describe the setup and say something about the story is of necessity going to sound a bit vague.

Kathy H is 31, and has been in her current line of work for eleven years, an unusually long time. She is finally preparing to make the transition to the next phase of her career, and she reminisces about two long-time friends who she's known since childhood. Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy grew up together at Hailsham, a private school of sorts in the English countryside that raises children and trains them for the unique challenges of their eventual career. After leaving Hailsham, the three drifted apart, but they've recently been re-united; as they get to know one another again, the secrets and lies of their childhood (and of Hailsham itself) are revealed.

It's a lovely book, sad and stately, and not nearly as simple as it first looks. Ishiguro does a marvelous job of parceling out the details and the explanations of what's really happening fast enough that we never get too frustrated, but slowly enough that there's always something hovering in the background that we can't quite get a grasp on until the very end.

I feel obliged to comment on the book's genre, while worrying that to do so will itself give away too much about the book, and possibly scare some readers away. For while it's not being sold as such -- you won't see the words anywhere in the marketing -- Never Let Me Go is a science fiction novel, set in an England where scientific advances and morality have progressed rather differently than they have in our world. As a science fiction reader, I'm offended whenever publishers avoid mentioning a book's SF credentials for fear that it won't be taken seriously as literature.

It is true, of course, that when a non-SF author ventures into SF, the results are sometimes not pretty. Authors who don't know the genre think they're being clever and original when they're restating ancient cliches (Audrey Niffenegger's ghastly The Time Traveler's Wife is a recent case in point). In this case, though, either Ishiguro has done his homework or he's just lucked into a reasonably fresh story. The book works both as science fiction and as literary fiction, which aren't nearly as incompatible as most literary types would have you believe.

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