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Kazuo Ishiguro is a master storyteller, in a class of his own making. In this, his sixth and strangest novel, his narrative brilliance depends, as always, on over-simplicity, a highly provocative idiom which embraces both the prosaic and the prissy. Innumerable sleights of hand, sly flash-forwards, almost psychotic bits of underwriting and a multitude of red herrings combine to make the reader ache with curiosity about what happened earlier and what happens next.
Ostensibly - but this is surely just another massive Ishiguro tease - Never Let Me Go is about a group of genetically-engineered or test-tube children living in a comfortable country house called Hailsham. Here there is a sports pavilion and a playing field, and the students do ordinary things like playing rounders. One little girl even has a gorgeous, luscious pencil case with a furry pom-pom attached to its zip...
Quite so, but from the uneasy opening lines onwards, we know there is something special about these children. They have no parents, no surnames, they never go on holiday, they will never have babies of their own. They are, in fact, being exclusively bred to become "donors".
The exact meaning of this sinister word is not made clear until page 73, when one of their more outspoken guardians suddenly blurts it all out. "None of you will go to America," she tells her charges. "None of you will be film stars... Your lives are set out for you. You'll become adults, then... you'll start to donate your vital organs. That's what each of you was created to do."
This thoroughly macabre tale is told by a pupil called Kathy in a schoolgirlish or nurse-like vernacular, at times brooding, mawkish, wearisome or poignantly cheery. She focuses particularly on her relationship with two fellow students, Tommy and Ruth. The bonds of loyalty between them, the allegiance and camaraderie - old Ishiguro themes - provide the book with its title. The hold they exercise on each other, and on the reader, becomes tighter as the story proceeds.
The dreadfulness of the subject matter - even Kathy admits at one point, "It's horror movie stuff" - is rubbed in by the perkily banal language. The rain comes "bucketing down", people "don't have the faintest", and sections begin with preambles like, "This might all sound daft but...". From time to time, the reader is dragged in, if not fatally compromised, by asides like, "I don't know how it was where you were...".
After a while, the story moves away from Hailsham - the name has its own eerie resonance and double meanings - but into an only marginally wider world. Kathy is now a carer, still closely involved with Tommy and Ruth, and hurrying between various "recovery centres" where she helps uncomplaining donors through their suicidally heroic ordeals. Donors, incidentally, do not "die". They "complete".
The narrator's time on the roads echoes the love-sick butler's odyssey in The Remains of the Day. She often sleeps in an "overnight" and sits alone in motorway cafeterias. Ishiguro's England is a simplified and desolate place, featureless apart from the odd bus shelter - wasn't there a significant bus shelter in the butler's story? - and such comically downbeat things as the shadowy reflections you see in hospital floors or "double glazed windows which seal at the touch of a handle".
The relish with which such matters are described is central to Ishiguro's art, but their incorporation into the text is done with such enigmatic grace and lightness of touch, such naturalness, that the reader may be forgiven for sometimes wondering if they are reflections of the author's own character and taste. Ishiguro undoubtedly has an artist's double vision. Perhaps he is also genuinely interested in double-glazing? If this is so, does it make his naively innocent pose somewhat artificial? It is also tempting to ask if Ishiguro's use of red herrings is a form of genius or evidence of a wandering mind.
In this novel, he frequently builds up the tension with appetite-whetting references to offstage noises, unexplained things on people's sleeves or - as in his first novel, A Pale View of Hills - caught around people's feet. Such diversions seem to have no direct bearing on the plot but their accumulated effect is so invigorating that it hardly matters if these are meticulously calculated master strokes or, just occasionally, actual slips of the pen.
Halfway through, Kathy and her two chums even pay a typically irrelevant but highly disturbing token visit to some symbolic marshland, a chilling reminder of the wistful landscape featured in A Pale View of Hills. This is the only occasion in Never Let Me Go when the author reverts to the Japanese-ness that characterised his early work and the dreaminess in which some critics feel he over-indulged in his mightily ambitious novel, The Unconsoled.
The narrative is rendered even more exciting by the fact that none of these poor doomed "clones" fights their fate. Have they been brain-washed not to care?
A brief flutter of interest is created by a chance encounter with a woman from whom Kathy's friend Ruth might possibly have been cloned, but their origins are of only passing interest to them. "Look down the toilet," declares Tommy after this last episode. "That's where you'll find we all come from."
In an utterly riveting final scene, which takes place in Littlehampton of all places (more Ishiguro playfulness?), our heroes have a meeting with the two high-minded women who set up Hailsham. Here the author introduces a beautiful red herring in the shape of a mysterious bedside cabinet which is being heaved down some stairs and taken off in a white van.
This is all very suggestive, all very medical, but Never Let Me Go has as little to do with genetic engineering and the cloning controversy as The Remains of the Day has to do with butlering or When We Were Orphans to do with detective work.
Ishiguro is primarily a poet. Accuracy of social observation, dialogue and even characterisation is not his aim. In this deceptively sad novel, he simply uses a science-fiction framework to throw light on ordinary human life, the human soul, human sexuality, love, creativity and childhood innocence.
He does so with devastating effect, gently hinting that we are all, to some extent, clones, all copycats and mimics who acquire our mannerisms from the TV and cinema screens, even advertisements, as much as from our elders and betters. And, more frighteningly, that we are all, to some extent, pawns in someone else's game, our lives set out for us.
Andrew Barrow's 'Quentin and Philip' is published by Pan
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