Kazuo Ishiguro: The samurai of suburbia

Kazuo Ishiguro's novel of Home Counties horror has triggered both Booker tips and bafflement. He tells Christina Patterson the secrets of his Guildford years

Kazuo Ishiguro's first memories of England are of double-decker buses and squashed hedgehogs. "These were the exotic things," he tells me. "I remember the branches scraping against the roof of the bus and looking down at the puddles and the squashed hedgehogs and feeling that they were all in some way connected. What", he asks suddenly, "happened to the hedgehogs?"

Kazuo Ishiguro's first memories of England are of double-decker buses and squashed hedgehogs. "These were the exotic things," he tells me. "I remember the branches scraping against the roof of the bus and looking down at the puddles and the squashed hedgehogs and feeling that they were all in some way connected. What", he asks suddenly, "happened to the hedgehogs?"

We're both musing on this when his wife, Lorna, pops her head around the door. "So that's what you talk about!" she says. "And I thought it was intellectual stuff!" If she is sick of the sight of journalists invading their immaculate home, she is far too polite to show it. She must, in any case, be used to it. It is 26 years since the down-to-earth Glaswegian met the quiet Japanese boy who wanted to be a rock star. It is 19 years since he won the Whitbread Book of the Year, 16 years since he won the Booker Prize, and twelve since his Booker-winning novel, The Remains of the Day, was made into a film.

The fact is that the publication of a Kazuo Ishiguro novel is a major literary event. In the past couple of weeks the bespectacled face opposite me has been popping up everywhere. The measured voice I'm listening to now has patiently answered the same questions in BBC studios and here, in Golders Green. And the coffee machine has been moved, in honour of visiting journalists, from the garage to the kitchen. The Ishiguros don't drink it, but they want to be polite.

What the other interviews appear to have missed, however, is a matter close to Ishiguro's heart, and to my own. We both grew up in Guildford. Hedgehogs were, to be honest, a little thin on the ground on my Sixties housing estate, but in Ishiguro's patch, a string of Thirties semis, they clearly featured more. What we both remember is the unparalleled latitude of a Surrey County Council primary education. Ish, as he is universally known, went to the school my mother taught at. She taught his younger sister, Yoko. Mrs Ishiguro senior still greets her politely in Guildford High Street. Ishiguro failed his 11-plus, but got to Woking Grammar on interview. "I think they knew we didn't have a hope!" he chuckles.

Guildford was meant to be a temporary interlude in the Ishiguro family chronicle. Ishiguro's oceanographer father came to study the North Sea, but always meant to go back. It was only when Kazuo was 16 that they made the decision to stay. "At some deeper level," he confides, "I think I always assumed we would, because I couldn't quite believe that my parents would pull me out of British life. I thought that my parents wouldn't dare do that to me."

Throughout this time, he was, he says, "building up a kind of Japan" in his head. "I suppose it was preparation for going back in some kind of way, but it was also a kind of nostalgia. In those days there was this feeling that Japan really was another planet.To some extent, that gave me a lot of freedom to make up Japan to my friends. A lot of it", he adds, "was based on speculation and memory."

Speculation and memory were, in fact, the linchpins of the Japan that featured in Ishiguro's early work. His first novel, A Pale View of Hills, written while he was doing the now infamous Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia, draws on his own early memories of Nagasaki. He left when he was five, but his memories of the place, and indeed of pretty much everything in his life, remain vivid. It's presumably the reason why memory is the central theme, as well as the mediating mechanism, of his work. Memory, of course, combined with melancholy-inducing speculation about paths not taken or failures of nerve.

It was only during his sole visit to Japan, in 1989, that Ishiguro realised that what he thought of as Japan was in fact "this tiny corner" of Nagasaki. "Geographically and physically," he says, "it was very different to anything else in Japan that I ever saw. The Japanese come to Nagasaki as tourists because it's so exotic and strange. Everyone's very calm. Even the cars are different."

It sounds, I say, suburban. A bit like Guildford. A bit, dare I say it, like Golders Green. Could this be why Ishiguro's narrators are, like the inhabitants of Nagasaki, "very calm"? His books are all about smooth surfaces and the seething chaos beneath. The fruit, perhaps, not just of Japan, but suburbia?

"I guess I've never thought about whether any of the actual physical places that I've lived in influenced that. It's possible," he muses. "You're right, it was a suburb of Nagasaki. It was a nice secluded bit of that neighbourhood, a tranquil house with a typical Japanese garden with a well in it. Ever since I started to write, reviewers made these comparisons with Japanese Zen gardens, a certain kind of tranquillity etc. The idea that that kind of temperament was extended in my English experience is probably quite a valid one.There is", he adds, "certainly a Japanese style that extends to all kinds of things. It has to be very neat and simple on the surface and you cram all the complicated stuff inside. All this hi-fi box" - he gestures towards the huge plasma screen and an impressive array of silver boxes - "you could argue that that's what I'm trying to do in my writing as well, preferably small, with a surface."

Certainly, five out of six of Ishiguro's books conform to this model: the short, wistful and usually unreliable first-person narrative that feels honed to the bone. Only his fourth novel, The Unconsoled, broke the mould and a literary reputation that had seemed unassailable. Set in a nameless European city, it takes the form of an endless car journey to a concert that never takes place. The critic James Wood thought it invented "its own category of badness". Tony Parsons suggested that Ishiguro commit hara-kiri.

His fourth novel, When We Were Orphans, which moves between 1930s London and Old Shanghai, was generally seen as a return to form. Shortlisted for the Booker, it provoked rapturous reviews. And now, with his new novel, Never Let Me Go (Faber, £16.99), it's happening all over again. "A clear frontrunner to be the year's most extraordinary novel," said Peter Kemp in The Sunday Times. "Devastating," said our own reviewer, Andrew Barrow, in a detailed review in these pages last week. Only Tony Parsons and Rosie Boycott, in a peculiarly banal discussion on Newsnight Review, failed to get the point. Parsons's worries appeared to be practical. "I kept thinking, 'Why don't they leg it?'" he mused.

"They" are Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, pupils at Hailsham, a boarding school set deep in the English countryside. It soon becomes clear, however, that this is no ordinary school and that the pupils have bigger worries than Ucas and A-levels. It's only through an exquisitely nuanced, and extremely moving, process of revelation that we realise that the pupils are, in fact, clones, bred for their organs and doomed to an early death. The novel is narrated by Kathy, now a 31-year old "carer", who spends her time travelling from one "recovery centre" to another. Now the time has come for her to become a "donor" herself.

Surprisingly, it didn't start with the cloning, or the organs but, says Ishiguro, as a novel "about this strange group of students". "I've got little pieces of writing upstairs," he says, "which go back to 1990, which are more or less the passages in the centre of the book." It was only after hearing a debate about biotechnology on the radio that he suddenly realised why the students were so strange. Keen to avoid the pitfalls of "futuristic fantasy", he decided to give it a near-contemporary setting, in an England that's strangely faded and flattened. "I didn't want", he explains, "to imply that this was in any way a prophecy or a warning. I wanted the story to have clear metaphorical links with the way we all live as human beings."

In this, he has succeeded. Like his friend Ian McEwan's Saturday (which he says he can't read until he's finished The Idiot), Never Let Me Go is a novel about love and goodness and the hopes and fears of the human heart. "It isn't cheery," says Ishiguro, "but it's no less gloomy than what we always know about our lives. We all know", says the failed rock star, with a rather cheerful smile, "that we're not going to be here for 300 years."

Biography: Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki in 1954, but moved with his family to Guildford, Surrey in 1960. His father, an oceonagrapher, had come to Britain to study the North Sea and always planned to go back. Ishiguro read English and philosophy at the University of Kent before doing the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia. In between, and after, he worked as a social worker, first in Renfrew, and later in London. He has written five previous novels: A Pale View of Hills (1982), An Artist of the Floating World (1986), which won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award, The Remains of the Day, which won the Booker Prize and was made into a film, The Unconsoled (1995) and When We Were Orphans (2000). Never Let Me Go (£16.99) is his sixth novel published by Faber. He lives with his wife, Lorna and daughter, Naomi, in Golders Green, north London.

Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial