Never Let Me Go is a great example of a book that slowly sucked me but then never let me go (ha) once it did. It’s part coming-of-age story, part character drama, and part horror novel. Author Kazuo Ishiguro writes brilliant prose that’s both understated and evocative.
Before I read this book, I’d heard a lot of hype for the “twist” of the story. You never want to read these words, because all it does is raise your expectations. I’ll say that anyone familiar with science fiction tropes will likely pick up on the so-called “twist” very early on. (I’ll also note that the fact that I guessed everything early did not significantly reduce my appreciation for the book.)
The book is about a young woman named Kathy reflecting on her early life, particularly her time at a special boarding school called Hailsham. Of particular concern for her are her friendships with Tommy and Ruth, fellow students.
Rather than the story’s sci-fi secret, it’s the intensity of the characters and the drama that stands out. Due to the characters’ circumstances, all of the fundamental human fears — What happens when we die? What makes a meaningful life? etc. — are amplified and very focused for them, particularly once you hit the middle third of the book.
What makes the book so chilling and lasting is how the dark premise that controls their lives serves as a backdrop for Kathy’s reflections, rather than the thrust of it. Kathy more or less takes it for granted, and it’s up to the readers to project significance on it. In other words, as horror author Ramsey campbell put it, the book is a “classic instance of a story that’s horrifying, precisely because the narrator doesn’t think it is.”
(And this is exactly the reason the book works better than the movie — prose is better than film for this kind of nonchalant perspective on dark material.)
The ending is anticlimactic, but in a way that feels almost poignant as a reflection on the doomed world the characters live in. Interpretation hint: it’s our own world.
(The song that the title comes from is not a real song: It’s an invention of Ishiguro. But the movie made a credible representation of the song that’s perfect except that it replaces the very significant “baby” lyric with “darling”)