My copy of Never Let Me Go is a 2006 edition, and it may well have been in 2006 that I read it for the first time. I’ve tried several times since then to reread it. The Remains of the Day is one of my personal top 10 novels: I consider it pretty much perfect. Many people I know admire Never Let Me Go even more, so it has always seemed that it would be worth going back to, both to experience it in that fuller way you usually can on a rereading and to see if I might like to assign it some day. And yet I have never read it again until now—at least, not all the way through. Why? Because every time I have tried, I have found it too dull, too slow, too (to put a more positive spin on it) subtle. Subtlety is one of Ishiguro’s great gifts, of course, but his characteristic understatement actually demands a lot of his readers en route to its rewards, and on every other attempt I just couldn’t keep it up.
I did this time, though just barely. The truth is that much of the first, say, 7/8 of Never Let Me Go is remarkable in its banality; what gives it momentum on a first read is the underlying eeriness, the creeping sense that something is awry with these children and their teachers and their situation, that there’s a mystery we need resolved. Sure, there are some intense moments along the way, but it’s the final 1/8 that, retrospectively, illuminates the earlier parts. It’s only as you near the end that you understand that the very triviality and pettiness and (more or less) normalcy of those years is the point, or the challenge, of the entire concept. A really attentive rereading would make the most of that later knowledge, and I expect all kinds of details would turn out to be much more significant than they seem in the moment, just as Stevens’s obsession with silver polish or choice of light reading in Remains turn out to matter much more than you might think at first. (Another novel that gets better and better, IMHO, the more you reread its earlier sections in light of its later ones is Atonement, which I really miss teaching!)
Anyway, I kept reading this time even though I was a bit bored, because I knew what was coming and I wanted to get there again. More than the novel itself, I have remembered James Wood’s review of it, which—rereading it today—still seems like an exemplary work of criticism. I have thought often of his discussion of the novel’s allegorical implications, the way it turns out to be not really (or at least not just) about cloning, but about life and death and how we all spend the time in between, about the strangeness of our assumption that “that to be assured of death at seventy or eighty or ninety returns to life all its savor and purpose.” “Why is sheer longevity,” Wood asks, “if it most certainly ends in the same way as sheer brevity, accorded meaning, while sheer brevity is thought to lack it?”
Offered, at last, some unsparing truths about the life she and her friends have lived, Kathy asks,
Why did we do all of that work in the first place? Why train us, encourage us, make us produce all of that? If we’re just going to give donations anyway, then die, why all those lessons? Why all those books and discussions?
Answers to this are implicit throughout Never Let Me Go: creativity, art, music, friendship, love are among the things that give any human life meaning, no matter its beginning or end. They are also, as Miss Emily defensively points out, things “which even now no one will ever take from you.” If the children had known the full context, “you would have told us it was all pointless, and how could we have argued with you?”
The novel’s thought experiment about cloning is chilling and provocative in the questions it raises about where scientific or medical “advances” might take us. I think it’s more powerful, though, as a commentary on meaning and value in our own lives, which also end in death sentences, if usually of a less calculated kind. Why would reading Daniel Deronda be pointless for Kathy and not for me? Why all these lessons, all these books and discussions? Why do we do all of this work? Some novels (I’m thinking of Sarah Winman’s Still Life, for example, perhaps because I read it relatively recently) answer these questions more robustly just by the force and delight of their own fiction. Never Let Me Go is more somber and equivocal, though I think ultimately it leads us in the same direction. A line from the series Angel comes to mind: “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.” The ending isn’t, in itself, where meaning lies, but it’s the certainty of the ending that gives meaning to what comes before—an idea which is both explored and represented in Ishiguro’s novel itself.
If we had to take sides, I’m still on Team Remains, but (though I’m unlikely ever to assign it) I’m glad I finally read Never Let Me Go a second time: in the end—by the end—it was worth it.