May 1, 2005
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Never Let Me Go

by Kazuo Ishiguro

Oh, but this is a sad, sad book.

It's not the sadness of elegy, really, not longing for bright glories and grand times we once had, not even though they weren't really as bright and grand as we once thought.

It's not the sadness of tragedy, either, the terrible knowledge that these fine young people are doomed, that the very things that make them so particularly, specifically wonderful are, in the end, going to destroy them.

Perhaps it's the sadness of a world that pays too much attention to Harry Potter, a response to the nostalgia that makes us dream of Hogwarts and Tom Brown's Schooldays and those merry old playing fields of Eaton.

This is, I think, the sadness of depression, of a bitter, hopeless resentment of everything and everyone. Ishiguro's latest is, oddly, science fiction set in the present. The plot mustn't be discussed because figuring out what the book is about is the book's narrative engine and, without that simple pleasure, I think the book might be unbearable.

This morning, the Boston Globe has an even-handed review of a book that explains that the reason American scientists seem to be losing the debate with creationism is that they occasionally talk about Darwin in politics and philosophy. If they would only stick to science and let the religious people have exclusive license to talk about faith, the religious people might stop complaining that teaching kids about science corrupts children's faith and might work to ensure that American science students will be even more poorly educated.

One sees why Ishiguro could get depressed.

Still, if Never Let Me Go were student work, or the work of an unknown writer, one might praise the spare clean prose and lament that the book was so inhumanly bleak, that its author has contrived to build a universe that is cruel beyond belief or plausibility, and that he has labeled that universe Britain in the Nineties not because this is true, but because it is convenient.

Update: Menand's review. " The central premise in this book is basically the same as that in the book that made Ishiguro famous, The Remains of the Day (1989): even when happiness is standing right in front of you, it’s very hard to grasp. Probably you already suspected that."

Metacritic has a nice rundown. Useful!