Sunday 16 August 2009

Never Let Me Go... Or Do, If You Feel Like It

Quite a few book reviews coming this week, so long as I can motivate myself to do it... I try and be that little bit more lucid when talking about a book. Which doesn't always go that well... Speaking of not going well, I've had a few recent reads which haven't quite been up to scratch. Not, ahem, below scratch, but nothing getting me too excited at the moment. Thought I'd share my thoughts on one or two of them nonetheless, mixed in this week with some books I've really liked, but somehow not managed to get around to writing about yet. Look out for reviews of two non-fiction titles (gasp!)

First off is a book group choice: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I hadn't read anything by Ishiguro before, though of course was aware of him, and always had him down as someone I'd investigate at some point. When I mentioned that I was reading Never Let Me Go to people, the response was always extreme. But not always to the same side. People assured me that I'd either love the book to the extent that I'd have the cover tattooed across my chest; others told me I'd loathe it so much that I'd send Ishiguro lengthy hate letters, and firebomb his kitchen.

So I was rather surprised when the main effect was... apathy. I was just completely underwhelmed.

For those who don't know the premise of the book, we open with Kathy H telling us about her life as a carer. She looks after other people in the process of making 'donations' - they make up to four of these, then they 'complete'. It's never specified what the donations are, but it's obvious pretty early on that it's parts of their bodies. After setting the scene there, Kathy reminisces about her school life at Hailsham; the various friends and exploits she had; the school's emphasis on art creation; the Sales where they bought much-prized tat. And so forth.

In terms of plotting, Ishiguro can be quite subtle. (I don't want to give away everything in Never Let Me Go, so I'll try to write about it without revealing central things...) But, once he unveils the 'secret' of the book (about two-thirds of the way through) I was left thinking 'so what?' So much mystery had been built up, so much supposed suspense, that the answer deflated the book. Like the school children, who discover the secret when we do in the narrative, we have been 'told and not told'. The information is always there, but in such a way as it doesn't sink home.

The inclusion of subtle little details can be quite clever - I liked the early emphatic anti-smoking teaching to the kids, and how that later makes sense - but there must be a better way to build up tension than to end paragraphs with 'But that was nothing compared to what happened at the lake', or 'And that was the day that Ruth did what she did', before going onto something different. I was reminded, I'm sorry to say, of the Goosebumps books. Did anybody read them? A cliffhanger at the end of every chapter, which likely as not would turn out to be nothing.

My biggest disappointment, however, was the writing style. Though I've never read Ishiguro before, I always had the idea that he was a great prose stylist. The writing in Never Let Me Go is just so bland. Yes, it's in the form of a first person narrative from a youngish, not-overly-bright woman, so perhaps it's appropriate, but it was just so... bland. I know I should support that with quotation, but that's the problem: it's all This Happened then That Happened, I Was Happy, I Was Sad. Nothing significant to quote. I don't know how he's got this reputation as a great prose writer... I wondered if his other books were better in that respect, but someone told me that they were all quite similarly written.

One other small quibble... I thought the title was rubbish. It refers to a song which Kathy likes to listen to, yes, but it doesn't evoke the book at all. Gives compl
etely the wrong impression.

Much of the discussion at book group was over the fact that none of the children resist their fate, nor try to escape it. And any criticism of the book was
considered to be a nod towards this argument... well, that part didn't bother me at all. I thought making them passive was a good idea. My problems were with style - and the fact that I finished the book without it really seeming to have begun.

This has been a pretty negative review, but that's mostly through disappointment. I was hoping to love Ishiguro, and I couldn't. The idea was interesting, it could have been developed into a great book. Never Let Me Go isn't dreadful, but it was just so pointless and average. An evening of book group couldn't persuade me otherwise, but if anyone *does* want to be counsel for the defence?

One final point... doesn't the cover remind you of one of the covers for Helen Garner's The Spare Room?


  1. Read "The Remains of the Day" before dismissing Ishiguro. I haven't read "Never Let Me Go," but from your review it sounds as though R of the D might be more enjoyable.

  2. I have read The Remains of the Day and another one by him of which the title escapes me. On that basis I totally agree with you. I think he is wildly overrated and cannot for the life of me understand why people admire his prose. Wooden and boring. And The Remains, told in the voice of the butler or whatever he is, I found completely unconvincing -- someone's idea of what an English butler might sound like but not at all authentic. Sorry for the rant but I am so glad to find someone who finally sees sense.

  3. I have only read one Ishiguro - The Remains of the Day - and I thought it was excellent, but I have never felt overly compelled to read anything else by him, I have to say. This is largely because I've heard his other books are not particularly fantastic.

    I would definitely recommend The Remains of the Day though.

  4. I haven't read this one but thanks for your review, it will be helpful if someone asks me about it at the library. Here's hoping that there's a gripping read on the horizon!

  5. Oh dear I have yet to read any Ishiguro... actually I realise thats a terrible lie. I have read An Artist of the Floating World which I didnt loathe or like it was as you said complete 'apathy' and nochalance which is a feeling I find odd when you have put effort into a book. I am going to try A Pale View from the Hills and of course Remains of the Day and see where I get with those.

  6. Aw, sorry this wasn't better for you! I liked Never Let Me Go - though not enough to have its cover tattooed on my chest. Having read two of his books, the quite obscure A Pale View of Hills and The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go is actually my least favorite.

    I remember feeling a bit annoyed with the "what happened later on" bits. But what I like about Ishiguro (enough to forgive him!) is the way he includes this small, jarring details, like notes slightly out of tune, to let you know something's up. I really enjoy that about his writing.

  7. I found the book a worthwhile read, but, like you, I didn't think it as good OR as bad as many others do.

  8. I liked Never Let Me Go...a lot. I can't comment on the prose style because I haven't read anything else by him to compare with, and also because I read this years ago and don't retain any details.
    The "revelation" wasn't meant to shock, I think. The way I remember it, I was halfway to guessing the twist anyway, and the revelation only confirmed it. I was more intrigued by the characters themselves, and how they reacted to situations. In other words, I approached the book as a character-driven, rather than a plot-driven tale and that is probably why I wasn't disappointed.

    Having said that, Never Let Me Go does not make it to my top ten.

  9. Have tried Ishiguro and felt the same way as you EXCEPT for Remains of the Day which is just so beautifully written it left me breathless. Without giving anything away there is one sentence at the very end of this book which reduced me to very unexpected tears as I found it so poignant and moving. BUT have to say that any others I have tried I cannot get on with,

  10. I enjoyed this book, mostly because I liked how he explored the situation, just weaving into the fabric of the characters' lives. And you're right on about the passivity. They're conditioned to it; of course that's how they'll behave.

    The writing itself neither bothered me or thrilled me. It was servicable and seemed to suit Kathy's character well enough. But given the choice, I'd rather read servicable prose that gets the job done than prose that attempts to be beautiful and comes out awkward.

  11. I've read only The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans. I liked them both immensely but haven't found any others to be appealing in the subject matter. Do you know Stacey Kent's music? Ishiguro wrote the words to some songs on one of her cds:

    It was nominated for a Grammy award.

  12. I felt exactly the same, blandness, and underwhelmed. Most of my enjoyment came afterwards, discussing the ethics of the story, not from reading it. The cliffhangers really annoyed me too.

  13. I really enjoyed The Spare Room, and Never Let Me Go (also Remains of the Day).

  14. I just finished Never Let Me Go and will post on it soon-after reading it I did a book blog serach for posts on it-most people really liked the book-I was wondering did I miss something or am I too demanding-my take on the book is very much like yours-the prose is bland and a bit boring-the build up takes to long and you dont get very excited when you see what it is all leading too-there are some clever details and I think it might be a good "airplane" book.

  15. I've only read When We Were Orphans and liked it so much I bought two copies at a library sale and sent one to my son, who unfortunately has put it "somewhere." Not everyone likes Ishiguro's prose. But I am now so curious about Never Let Me Go, I will put it on my list, and of comment on my reactions. Thanks for the challenging review!

  16. When I finished Never Let Me Go, I had to have a long hard think about my reaction to it. It was a tricky subject matter and parts of the novel tore my heart out. The first half of the book convinced me that it was boring. But once I turned the corner with the second half of the novel, I began to appreciate the style of prose. I get the impression with Ishiguro, being Japanese but living in London, that he is quite a reserved person and it comes through in his writing. Though it appears stark and reserved I still find something quite beautiful about his style.
    By the way this is my first time on your blog and I think for a book worm it is magnificent. Well done. Loving reading all the reviews of books I have read and books on my "to read list."

    1. Thanks so much, Jules!

      It's been so long since I read Never Let Me Go that I can't remember much, but I will try him again (I have The Unconsoled waiting for me.)

    2. I found it just dire. It reminded me of the quality of proseI might have expected from a not-very-talented-but-competent-with-writing 14 year old when I taught English.

  17. Thank god. I am not alone. I thought Never Let Me Go was absolutely dismal. It's still beyond me why I even bothered finishing it. I am now delighted to have started The Human Stain by Philip Roth. Five pages in and it makes Never Let Me Go look like a nursery rhyme.


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