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'Never Let Me Go'

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page BW02


By Kazuo Ishiguro. Knopf. 288 pp. $24

Kazuo Ishiguro's strange, and strangely affecting, new novel revolves around three people whom we first meet as children and whose fates are decided in early adulthood. It is an exceedingly difficult novel to review because essential aspects of it are also essential to the complex mystery at its core, so discussing it almost immediately becomes a delicate balance between what can and cannot be revealed. Believing as I strongly do that readers must be allowed to discover a book's secrets for themselves, guided by the author's hand, rather than have those secrets gratuitously spilled by a reviewer, I shall err on the side of silence, so please bear with me.

Never Let Me Go is set in an undisclosed time -- not in the future, though the novel pays more than a slight bow to science fiction, perhaps between the 1950s and the 1970s -- at a place in the British countryside called Hailsham. It is a school, but a school unlike any other. It was intended to be "a shining beacon, an example of how we might move to a more humane and better way of doing things." The teachers are called "guardians" and the students, though that is what they are called, are neither ordinary students nor ordinary children. They come to Hailsham at a very early age and stay there until, as older teenagers, they are permitted to live in "the Cottages" or "the White Mansion" or "Poplar Farm," halfway houses from which they make tentative steps into the real world.

The narrator of the novel is Kathy, or Kath, and the two other principal characters are her close friends and occasional rivals, Ruth and Tommy. She is "thirty-one years old, and . . . a carer now for over eleven years." What is a carer? One of the novel's mysteries, not really to be solved until two-thirds of the way through; suffice it to say that it's a difficult, emotionally and physically wearing job. Ruth and Tommy, approximately her own age, are "donors," but that mystery, too, must be left to Ishiguro to solve.

In any event, for most of the novel Ishiguro is primarily concerned with the three as children and with the odd world they inhabit at Hailsham. The school, or institution, or whatever one cares to call it, is located on a large parcel of beautiful land, isolated from the outer world. Its students are made to understand that "we were all very special," that "we were different from our guardians, and also from the normal people outside." Their futures are hinted at but not faced head-on: "We hated the way our guardians, usually so on top of everything, became so awkward whenever we came near this territory. It unnerved us to see them change like that." They have a "special chance," but they have only the vaguest idea what that might be.

They are so caught up in the rituals and routines of Hailsham, though, that they have little time for speculation about the distant time of adulthood. They excitedly await "Exchanges," for example: "Four times a year -- spring, summer, autumn, winter -- we had a kind of big exhibition-cum-sale of all the things we'd been creating in the three months since the last Exchange. Paintings, drawings, pottery; all sorts of 'sculptures' made from whatever was the craze of the day -- bashed-up cans, maybe, or bottle tops stuck onto cardboard." Each child is given "Exchange Tokens" with which he or she can "buy work done by students in your own year," from which they form collections that become precious mementos of their time at Hailsham.

The very best products of their creative labors go to "the Gallery." None of them has ever seen it or even knows where it is, but the pieces for it are regularly chosen by a woman whose name they do not know -- "we called her 'Madame' because she was French or Belgian -- there was a dispute as to which -- and that was what the guardians always called her" -- and having one's work selected is regarded as a great honor. They also know that Miss Emily, the head of Hailsham, told one student "that things like pictures, poetry, all that kind of stuff, she said they revealed what you were like inside. She said they revealed your soul."

Besides the Exchanges, the children look forward to the Sales, which "were important to us because that was how we got hold of things from outside." Every month "a big white van" brings the flotsam and jetsam of the outside world:

"Looking back now, it's funny to think we got so worked up, because usually the Sales were a big disappointment. There'd be nothing remotely special and we'd spend our tokens just renewing stuff that was wearing out or broken with more of the same. But the point was, I suppose, we'd all of us in the past found something special at a Sale, something that had become special: a jacket, a watch, a pair of craft scissors never used but kept proudly next to a bed. We'd all found something like that at one time, and so however much we tried to pretend otherwise, we couldn't ever shake off the old feelings of hope and excitement."

Too, the Sales are a way of connecting to the world outside: "at that stage in our lives, any place beyond Hailsham was like a fantasy land; we had only the haziest notions of the world outside and about what was and wasn't possible there." Hailsham is a closed circle beyond which they are not permitted to venture, with the result that the larger world becomes the subject of apprehension as well as curiosity: The children are "fearful of the world around us, and -- no matter how much we despised ourselves for it -- unable quite to let each other go."

That theme, which recurs throughout the book, is summarized for Kathy by a long-playing record she owned for a while -- eventually, and mysteriously, it vanished -- called "Songs After Dark," by a singer named Judy Bridgewater (fictitious, as best I can determine), one track of which is a song titled "Never Let Me Go." The students have been told "it was completely impossible for any of us to have babies," but even as a very young child Kathy dreams of having one:

"What was so special about this song? Well, the thing was, I didn't used to listen properly to the words; I just waited for that bit that went: 'Baby, baby, never let me go. . . .' And what I'd imagined was a woman who'd been told she couldn't have babies, who'd really, really wanted them all her life. Then there's a sort of miracle and she has a baby, and she holds this baby very close to her and walks around singing: 'Baby, never let me go. . .' partly because she's so happy, but also because she's so afraid something will happen, that the baby will get ill or be taken away from her. Even at the time, I realized this couldn't be right, that this interpretation didn't fit with the rest of the lyrics. But that wasn't an issue with me. The song was about what I said, and I used to listen to it again and again, on my own, whenever I got the chance."

One time Kathy is alone in her room, playing the song, "swaying about slowly in time to the song, holding an imaginary baby to my breast." Then "something made me realize I wasn't alone, and I opened my eyes to find myself staring at Madame framed in the doorway. . . . She was out in the corridor, standing very still, her head angled to one side to give her a view of what I was doing inside. And the odd thing was she was crying. It might even have been one of her sobs that had come through the song to jerk me out of my dream." When she tells Tommy about this, he says: "Maybe Madame can read minds. She's strange. Maybe she can see right inside you."

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