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Onyx reviews: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go is narrated by thirty-one-year-old Kathy H., who is preparing to move from one phase of her life to another. She is a former student of Hailsham, an elite British countryside school. All their young lives, Hailsham students were told by their guardians that they are special, and over the course of the novel readers come to learn what this means. Ishiguro metes out this information slowly until the full import of their situation is revealed.

The mastery of Never Let Me Go is the way in which Ishiguro's heroine wanders down memory lane. Hers is not a linear reminiscence. Kath follows threads through the years, allowing one recollection to lead to another, then rewinds to pick up the chronology somewhere else. She is a sensitive, careful observer of her friends and the guardians, often intervening to smooth things over when conflict arises. That she becomes successful as a carer should come as no surprise-once readers discover what that term means. Her recollections are tinged with foreboding. There's a surprise awaiting, but it's not Kath's intent to hide anything. She's merely remembering as if her audience is already in on the secret.

For the Hailsham students have been brought into the world for a purpose-which will not be revealed in this review. Their futures are preordained. The guardians don't hide this, but reveal information in a way that dilutes its impact. The students develop theories and propagate rumors. Their best artwork is spirited away to a mythical Gallery by a woman they call Madame. They fantasize about their "possibles" and wonder if their own lives might follow the same track as these hypothetical people. Students who demonstrate they are truly in love believe they might get a deferral. They debate among themselves, but rarely ask the most fundamental question: Must they follow blindly like sheep the course society has set for them?

A guardian, frustrated at the way the students are "told but not told" things, tries to set the record straight. They will never run businesses, be actors, or travel to America. They will never have children. The book is a coming-of-age story in which the characters can never truly come of age. Normal people shun them. Some are openly afraid. Many debate whether they are human, and whether or not they have souls.

The book's bigger concepts are subtly handled through characterization. Kath remembers mostly ordinary lives punctuated by conundrums for which there are no answers. Her two closest friends are Ruth and Tommy. Like any group of children and adolescents, their relationships are uneven, fraught with tiffs, manipulation, secrets, deceit, reconciliation and antagonism. Once readers understand what is going on, these conflicts take on layers of poignancy.

After Hailsham, the students move to halfway houses where, for the first time in their lives, there are no guardians. They are free to explore the world around them; however, they are hesitant to move beyond their safe havens. Of the many rumors that pertain to others of their kind, none allude to anyone attempting to escape his destiny. Sophomoric dramas continue. Kath's relationships with Ruth and Tommy grow more complex and fractious. Ultimately Kath decides that it's time to move on-she applies to become a carer. She embraces her future.

The novel's title comes from a song that entrances Kath in her youth, one whose lyrics she misunderstands and yet, in that misunderstanding, homes in on the pivotal question of her existence. In the book's present, nearly a dozen years later, she revisits those old relationships as she becomes a carer in turn to Ruth and Tommy. In spite of the time that has passed and all that they have endured, none of them question-they merely accept.

One problem with genre categorization is that it brings certain expectations. Classifying Never Let Me Go as science fiction conjures images of Star Wars-like space operas populated by hostile aliens. On the surface the book is a straightforward reminiscence, yet it uses a familiar backdrop to examine the conflict between ethics, morality and science. Ishiguro was born in Japan but raised in England from an early age. This combination of cultural sensibilities gives rise to a unique viewpoint and narrative approach. Both cultures have elements of restraint and acceptance. Ishiguro creates a dystopian reality on the level of Brave New World without making his creation seem hostile or, indeed, alien. In fact, the impact of Never Let Me Go depends on the book's society being frighteningly recognizable.

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