Book Review: “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro

Posted on January 17, 2015 by


Never Let Me GoNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ishiguro writes literary fiction layered heavily over a solid sci-fi plot that shines through only faintly–which is why he’s such a literary darling, and one of my favourite authors.

“Never Let Me Go” captured my childhood exactly: I went to a British public school with traditions so old they ceased to make any sense. I called it an “exam factory”, because anything that did not either prepare students for taking a particular public exam or conform to school traditions was winnowed out of our experience by natural selective pressures.

In Ishiguro’s universe, there’s an unsettling reason behind these practices that in turn makes its own commentary about British society and its concept of class. My school was old, but public–i.e., if you had the money or the smarts, you could get in. Schools like Eton aren’t: the only qualification you need to attend Eton is the circumstance of your birth. In “Never Let Me Go”, it’s the same concept but a perversion; the circumstance of your birth determines whether you attend Hailsham, but instead of membership in an exclusive upper class, you must be in the upper echelons of the lowest class possible, debatably sub-human.

The novel is also commentary on a distinctly British trait: training that you receive throughout childhood that enables you to mirror outside oppression so that you do all the work yourself when grown. It’s not quite *re*pression, i.e. the reining in of emotion–which, to my mind, is a consequence of self-oppression–but a kind of self-made straightjacket. Your upbringing applies the straps; you learn to tighten them yourself. Perhaps it’s like a corset: without the tight binding that you’ve adapted to, your muscles fold.

In the case of Ishiguro’s protagonists, the tight mental binding of class perceptions that they learn to apply to themselves will kill them, but they have no tools to support themselves except for self-oppression; they’re incapable of competent resistance.

American readers might find this book difficult–American dystopian fiction needs checks and balances in place to force its protagonists into submission–because they have no real experience of the British concept of class. I struggle with it, I’ll admit; I am a child of American parents who grew up in Britain. One solution to a class system like Britain is, effectively, America–but America as a practical demonstration of independence is problematic (Manifest Destiny, gun deaths).

I deeply appreciate “Never Let Me Go”: dystopias are only possible through lifelong, relentless conditioning like the British class system. From a Kantian perspective, the class system in Britain (and various American concepts, mind you) are like coloured gels applied to a spotlight–everything happens within a colour/inside a concept. If all you see is systematically coloured, your resistance will in turn be from inside that system. British resistance to class will never understand the experience of no-class; even when they succeed they will experience class because they don’t know how NOT to apply it, but! their children might see through a fainter tint. Dystopias can’t be shattered, but they might fade away: the British class system *is* vanishing, but it’s taken a thousand years.

America was initially a thought-experiment in which the British class system suffered a catastrophic break–but it does survive, in a form: America is just as fervently class-obsessed as Britain, except the circumstances of class in America are ostensibly based on wealth rather than birth. (If you’re born into a rich family, then not much is different.) The labour pains of this new political ideal illustrate the fact that America does protect its adapted class system rather viciously–viz., McCarthyism and its Communist witch-hunting–whereas Britain, safely trudging along the path away from birth-determined-class, has no problem adopting socialist policy. We don’t determine class with money; the government isn’t cheating anyone of their rightful place on the social ladder.

Well, historically speaking. Recently, the fading birth = class system has left a void–and we merrily follow the American meritocratic example: hence the dismantling of publicly owned assets like the NHS and British Rail. The rich see an opportunity to insert themselves into the upper class, and the upper class aim to be rich to cement their positions–“Liquify your family name asset, quick! Quick! Before it doesn’t mean anything anymore!”

I feel the same scrabbling of comprehension that Ishiguro’s American readers must feel when I read Japanese novels (Russian literature makes sense to me, I think because Russian experience of feudalism is very close to Britain’s). It’s unpleasant, I know; there’s a joke you’re just not getting. Power through.

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