Excerpted from Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Copyright © 2005 by Kazuo Ishiguro. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Kazuo Ishiguro is the author of seven novels, including Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, which have been adapted into films. Ishiguro’s work has been translated into forty languages and has won him many honors, including the Booker Prize, the Order of the British Empire for service to literature, and the French decoration Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He lives in London with his wife and daughter.
A Conversation withKAZUO ISHIGUROQ: What was your starting point for Never Let Me Go?A: Over the last fifteen years I kept writing pieces of a story about an odd group of “students” in the English countryside. I was never sure who these people were. I just knew they lived in wrecked farmhouses, and though they did a few typically student-like things—argued over books, worked on the occasional essay, fell in and out of love—there was no college campus or teacher anywhere in sight. I knew too that some strange fate hung over these young people, but I didn’t know what. In my study at home, I have a lot of these short pieces, some going back as far as the early ‘90s. I’d wanted to write a novel about my students, but I’d never got any further; I’d always ended up writing some other quite different novel. Then around four years ago I heard a discussion on the radio about advances in biotechnology. I usually tune out when scientific discussions come on, but this time I listened, and the framework around these students of mine finally fell in place. I could see a way of writing a story that was simple, but very fundamental, about the sadness of the human condition.Q: This novel is set in a recognizable England of the late 20th century. Yet it contains a key dystopian, almost sci-fi dimension you’d normally expect to find in stories set in the future (such as Brave New World). Were you at any point tempted to set it in the future?A: I was never tempted to set this story in the future. That’s partly a personal thing. I’m not very turned on by futuristic landscapes. Besides, I don’t have the energy to think about what cars or shops or cup-holders would look like in a future civilization. And I didn’t want to write anything that could be mistaken for a “prophecy.” I wanted rather to write a story in which every reader might find an echo of his or her own life. In any case, I’d always seen the novel taking place in the England of the ‘70s and ‘80s–the England of my youth, I suppose. It’s an England far removed from the butlers-and-Rolls Royce England of, say, The Remains of the Day. I pictured England on an overcast day, flat bare fields, weak sunshine, drab streets, abandoned farms, empty roads. Apart from Kathy’s childhood memories, around which there could be a little sun and vibrancy, I wanted to paint an England with the kind of stark, chilly beauty I associate with certain remote rural areas and half-forgotten seaside towns.Yes, you could say there’s a “dystopian” or “sci-fi” dimension. But I think of it more as an “alternative history” conceit. It’s more in the line of “What if Hitler had won?” or “What if Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated?” The novel offers a version of Britain that might have existed by the late twentieth century if just one or two things had gone differently on the scientific front. Q: Kathy, the narrator of this book, isn’t nearly as buttoned-up as some of your previous narrators (such as those of The Remains of the Day or When We Were Orphans) and seems more reliable to the reader. Was this a deliberate departure on your part?A: One of the dangers you have to guard against as a novelist is repeating things you’re deemed to have done well in the past, just for the security of repeating them. I’ve been praised in the past for my unreliable, self-deceiving, emotionally restrained narrators. You could almost say at one stage that was seen as my trademark. But I have to be careful not to confuse my narrators with my own identity as a writer. It’s so easy, in all walks of life, to get trapped into a corner by things that once earned you praise and esteem.That’s not to say I won’t one day reprieve my buttoned-up unreliable narrators if that’s what my writing requires. You see, in the past, my narrators were unreliable, not because they were lunatics, but because they were ordinarily self-deceiving. When they looked back over their failed lives, they found it hard to see things in an entirely straight way. Self-deception of that sort is common to most of us, and I really wanted to explore this theme in my earlier books. But Never Let Me Go isn’t concerned with that kind of self-deception. So I needed my narrator to be different. An unreliable narrator here would just have got in the way.Q: Was it a different experience writing from the female perspective, and also writing in a modern-day vernacular rather than the more formal language of past eras?A: I didn’t worry much about using a female narrator. My first published novel, A Pale View of Hills, was narrated by a woman too. When I was a young writer, I used narrators who were elderly, who lived in cultures very different from my own. There’s so much imaginative leaping you have to do to inhabit a fictional character anyway, the sex of the character becomes just one of so many things you have to think about–and it’s probably not even one of the more demanding challenges.As for the more vernacular style, well, she’s someone narrating in contemporary England, so I had to have her talk appropriately. These are technical things, like actors doing accents. The challenge isn’t so much achieving a voice that’s more vernacular, or more formal, it’s getting one that properly presents that narrator’s character. It’s finding a voice that allows a reader to respond to a character not just through what he or she does in the story, but also through how he/she speaks and thinks.Q: This novel, like most of your others, is told through the filter of memory. Why is memory such a recurring theme in your work?A: I’ve always liked the texture of memory. I like it that a scene pulled from the narrator’s memory is blurred at the edges, layered with all sorts of emotions, and open to manipulation. You’re not just telling the reader: “this-and-this happened.” You’re also raising questions like: why has she remembered this event just at this point? How does she feel about it? And when she says she can’t remember very precisely what happened, but she’ll tell us anyway, well, how much do we trust her? And so on. I love all these subtle things you can do when you tell a story through someone’s memories.But I should say I think the role played by memory in Never Let Me Go is rather different to what you find in some of my earlier books. In, say, The Remains of the Day, memory was something to be searched through very warily for those crucial wrong turns, for those sources of regret and remorse. But in this book, Kathy’s memories are more benevolent. They’re principally a source of consolation. As her time runs out, as her world empties one by one of the things she holds dear, what she clings to are her memories of them.Q: The setting for the first section of this book is a boarding school and you capture well the peer pressure and self-consciousness of being a kid at such a place. Did you draw on your own past for this? Did you have other direct sources, such as your daughter?A: I never went to boarding school, and my daughter doesn’t go to one now! But of course I drew on my own memories of what it felt like to be a child and an adolescent. And though I don’t study my daughter and her friends, notebook in hand, I suppose it’s inevitable the experience of being a parent would inform the way I portray children.Having said that, I can’t think of any one scene in that “school” section that’s based, even partly, on an actual event that ever happened to me or anyone I know. When I write about young people, I do much the same as when I write about elderly people, or any other character who’s very different from me in culture and experience. I try my best to think and feel as they would, then see where that takes me. I don’t find that children present any special demands for me as a novelist. They’re just characters, like everyone else.The school setting, I must add, is appealing because in a way it’s a clear physical manifestation of the way all children are separated off from the adult world, and are drip-fed little pieces of information about the world that awaits them, often with generous doses of deception, kindly meant or otherwise. In other words, it serves as a very good metaphor for childhood in general.Q: You’ve sometimes written screenplays, including the one for the upcoming Merchant Ivory movie The White Countess. And you’ve had the experience of seeing your novel The Remains of the Day made into a well-known movie. What for you is the relationship between cinema and the novel? Is it fruitful or dangerous for a writer to work in both?A: I find writing for cinema and writing novels very different. That’s partly because writing novels is my vocation, my full-time job, while I’m a kind of enthusiastic amateur when it comes to screenplays. A key difference is that in cinema the story is told principally through images and music–the words are a kind of supplement. In a novel, words are all you have. But the two forms have many things in common, of course, and I think you can learn much about one from the other.As you say, I wrote the screenplay to The White Countess, and collaborated on a movie released last year, The Saddest Music In The World. One important attraction of screenwriting for me is that it’s part of a larger collaborative process. There’s something unhealthy about continually writing novels all your life. A novelist doesn’t collaborate the way musicians or theatre people do, and after a while the lack of fresh influences can be dangerous. For me, working on a film, with a director, with actors, maybe other writers, is a good way to keep outside influences coming in.I’m often asked if I worry that writing screenplays will make my novels more like screenplays. But I’ve found the exact opposite. Looking back, my first novel, A Pale View of Hills, looks to me very close to a screenplay in technique. It moves forward scene by scene with pared-down dialogue, little set descriptions and stage directions. But just after I finished that novel, I wrote two screenplays for British TV’s Channel 4, and that made me acutely conscious of the differences between film writing and novel writing. I became dissatisfied with the idea that I might write a novel that could just as well have been a film. My feeling at the time was that novels wouldn’t survive as a form–wouldn’t be able to compete with TV and cinema–unless they focused on doing things only novels could do. Ever since then, I’ve tried to write books that offer an experience completely different from the sort you might get in front of a cinema or TV screen. You could say I want to write unfilmable novels–though I’ve been keen enough to discuss movie adaptations once I finish a book! But while I’m writing, I want my novel to work uniquely as a novel, and my screenplay to work uniquely as a film.
From the Hardcover edition.
"A page turner and a heartbreaker, a tour de force of knotted tension and buried anguish.” —Time
“A Gothic tour de force. . . . A tight, deftly controlled story . . . . Just as accomplished [as The Remains of the Day] and, in a very different way, just as melancholy and alarming.” —The New York Times
"Elegaic, deceptively lovely. . . . As always, Ishiguro pulls you under." —Newsweek
“Superbly unsettling, impeccably controlled . . . . The book’s irresistible power comes from Ishiguro’s matchless ability to expose its dark heart in careful increments.” —Entertainment Weekly
1. Kathy introduces herself as an experienced carer. She prides herself on knowing how to keep her donors calm, “even before fourth donation” [p. 3]. How long does it take for the meaning of such terms as “donation,” “carer,” and “completed” to be fully revealed?
2. Kathy addresses us directly, with statements like “I don’t know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham we used to have some form of medical every week” [p. 13], and she thinks that we too might envy her having been at Hailsham [p. 4]. What does Kathy assume about anyone she might be addressing, and why?
3. Why is it important for Kathy to seek out donors who are “from the past,” “people from Hailsham” [p. 5]? She learns from a donor who’d grown up at an awful place in Dorset that she and her friends at Hailsham had been really “lucky” [p. 6]. How does the irony of this designation grow as the novel goes on? What does Hailsham represent for Kathy, and why does she say at the end that Hailsham is “something no one can take away” [p. 287]?
4. Kathy tells the reader, “How you were regarded at Hailsham, how much you were liked and respected, had to do with how good you were at ‘creating’” [p. 16]. What were Hailsham’s administrators trying to achieve in attaching a high value to creativity?
5. Kathy’s narration is the key to the novel’s disquieting effect. First person narration establishes a kind of intimacy between narrator and reader. What is it like having direct access to Kathy’s mind and feelings? How would the novel be different if narrated from Tommy’s point of view, or Ruth’s, or Miss Emily’s?
6. What are some of Ruth’s most striking character traits? How might her social behavior, at Hailsham and later at the Cottages, be explained? Why does she seek her “possible” so earnestly [pp. 159–67]?
7. One of the most notable aspects of life at Hailsham is the power of the group. Students watch each other carefully and try on different poses, attitudes, and ways of speaking. Is this behavior typical of most adolescents, or is there something different about the way the students at Hailsham seek to conform?
8. How do Madame and Miss Emily react to Kathy and Tommy when they come to request a deferral? Defending her work at Hailsham, Miss Emily says, “Look at you both now! You’ve had good lives, you’re educated and cultured” [p. 261]. What is revealed in this extended conversation, and how do these revelations affect your experience of the story?
9. Why does Tommy draw animals? Why does he continue to work on them even after he learns that there will be no deferral?
10. Kathy reminds Madame of the scene in which Madame watched her dancing to a song on her Judy Bridgewater tape. How is Kathy’s interpretation of this event different from Madame’s? How else might it be interpreted? Is the song’s title again recalled by the book’s final pages [pp. 286–88]?
11. After their visit to Miss Emily and Madame, Kathy tells Tommy that his fits of rage might be explained by the fact that “at some level you always knew” [p. 275]. Does this imply that Kathy didn’t? Does it imply that Tommy is more perceptive than Kathy?
12. Does the novel examine the possibility of human cloning as a legitimate question for medical ethics, or does it demonstrate that the human costs of cloning are morally repellent, and therefore impossible for science to pursue? What kind of moral and emotional responses does the novel provoke? If you extend the scope of the book’s critique, what are its implications for our own society?
13. The novel takes place in “the late 1990s,” and a postwar science boom has resulted in human cloning and the surgical harvesting of organs to cure cancer and other diseases. In an interview with January Magazine Ishiguro said that he is not interested in realism.* In spite of the novel’s fictitious premise, however, how “realistically” does Never Let Me Go reflect the world we live in, where scientific advancement can be seemingly irresistible?
14. The teacher Lucy Wainright wanted to make the children more aware of the future that awaited them. Miss Emily believed that in hiding the truth, “We were able to give you something, something which even now no one will ever take from you, and we were able to do that principally by sheltering you. . . . Sometimes that meant we kept things from you, lied to you. . . . But . . . we gave you your childhoods” [p. 268]. In the context of the story as a whole, is this a valid argument?
15. Is it surprising that Miss Emily admits feeling revulsion for the children at Hailsham? Does this indicate that she believes Kathy and Tommy are not fully human? What is the nature of the moral quandary Miss Emily and Madame have gotten themselves into?
16. Critic Frank Kermode has noted that “Ishiguro is fundamentally a tragic novelist; there is always a disaster, remote but urgent, imagined but real, at the heart of his stories” [London Review of Books, April 21, 2005]. How would you describe the tragedy at the heart of Never Let Me Go?
17. Some reviewers have expressed surprise that Kathy, Tommy, and their friends never try to escape their ultimate fate. They cling to the possibility of deferral, but never attempt to vanish into the world of freedom that they view from a distance. Yet they love the film The Great Escape, “the moment the American jumps over the barbed wire on his bike” [p. 99]. Why might Ishiguro have chosen to present them as fully resigned to their early deaths?
18. Reread the novel’s final paragraph, in which Kathy describes a flat, windswept field with a barbed wire fence “where all sorts of rubbish had caught and tangled.” She imagines Tommy appearing here in “the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up” [p. 287]. What does the final sentence indicate about Kathy’s state of mind as she faces her losses and her own death—stoicism, denial, courage, resolution?
19. In a recent interview, Ishiguro talked about Never Let Me Go: “There are things I am more interested in than the clone thing. How are they trying to find their place in the world and make sense of their lives? To what extent can they transcend their fate? As time starts to run out, what are the things that really matter? Most of the things that concern them concern us all, but with them it is concertinaed into this relatively short period of time. These are things that really interest me and, having come to the realization that I probably have limited opportunities to explore these things, that’s what I want to concentrate on. I can see the appeal of travel books and journalism and all the rest of it and I hope there will be time to do them all one day. But I just don’t think that day is now.” How do these remarks relate to your own ideas about the book? [Interview with Nicholas Wroe, The Guardian, February 2, 2005.]