What Madame thinks she sees will not be revealed for many pages, but it gets right to the essence of this quite wonderful novel, the best Ishiguro has written since the sublime The Remains of the Day. It is almost literally a novel about humanity: what constitutes it, what it means, how it can be honored or denied. These little children, and the adults they eventually become, are brought up to serve humanity in the most astonishing and selfless ways, and the humanity they achieve in so doing makes us realize that in a new world the word must be redefined. Ishiguro pulls the reader along to that understanding at a steady, insistent pace. If the guardians at Hailsham "timed very carefully and deliberately everything they told us, so that we were always just too young to understand properly the latest piece of information," by the same token Ishiguro carefully and deliberately unfolds Hailsham's secrets one by one, piece by piece, as if he were slowly peeling an artichoke.
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Excerpt: A Brush With Madame
"She's scared of us," . . .
We were lying in the dark in our dorm. In the Juniors, we were fifteen to a dorm, so didn't get to have the sort of long intimate conversations we did once we got to the Senior dorms. But most of what became our "group" had beds close together by then, and we were already getting the habit of talking into the night.
"What do you mean, scared of us?" someone asked. "How can she be scared of us? What could we do to her?"
"I don't know," Ruth said. "I don't know, but I'm sure she is. I used to think she was just snooty, but it's something else, I'm sure of it now. Madame's scared of us."
We argued about this on and off for the next few days. . . . in the end we settled on a plan to put her theory to the test the next time Madame came to Hailsham. . . .
At a signal from Ruth we all sauntered out, moving straight for her. . . .
I'll never forget the strange change that came over us the next instant. . . . What I mean is, until then, it had been a pretty light-hearted matter, with a bit of a dare element to it. And it wasn't even as though Madame did anything other than what we predicted she'd do: she just froze and waited for us to pass by. She didn't shriek, or even let out a gasp. . . . I glanced quickly at her face -- as did the others, I'm sure. And I can still see it now, the shudder she seemed to be suppressing, the real dread that one of us would accidentally brush against her. And though we just kept on walking, we all felt it; it was like we'd walked from the sun right into the chilly shade.
-- From Never Let Me Go,
by Kazuo Ishiguro