Like his brilliant Booker Prize winner The Remains Of The Day, Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel Never Let Me Go is at heart about missed opportunities, failures of communication, romances that weren't, dedication to duty, and stories read between the lines. But instead of the past, it takes place in a not-so-distant future, and instead of turning on rich, precise, plummy language, it plays games of meaning with plainer prose. It's a decidedly different book, but carries the same sweet, melancholy impact.
The narrator, known only as Kathy H, begins the book speaking obliquely of carers and donors, and later of Sales, guardians, completions, possibles, and Exchanges, all innocuous words that take on secretive and ominous meanings as Ishiguro brings them up repeatedly in different contexts before explaining their significance. Much of the book is a reminiscence back to Kathy's days at Hailsham, a remote British private school where odd customs and routines are followed, and certain topics are never spoken of, or only alluded to in jokes. The students are given to understand that they will never have children and never hold jobs, but that they will eventually venture into the world nonetheless. They're encouraged to express themselves creatively, but their best work is taken away by a woman who seems afraid of them. They also seem to be encouraged into a polite passivity. Much of the book follows Kathy's relationships with other students, particularly a temperamental boy named Tommy and his on-again, off-again girlfriend Ruth. Over many years of interaction, Kathy and Tommy gain minor clues about their future and deal with Ruth's manipulations, but avoid direct confrontations, even when openly faced with destructive lies. This opens up the path to a life full of unexpressed thoughts and painful misunderstandings, and in a few cases, petty low-key revenge.
In one sense, Never Let Me Go is a mystery novel, with the question of the characters' purpose and future hanging constantly in the air. But the clues are all in place, and the mystery is easy enough to unravel; the book isn't meant as a thriller with a big, high-impact reveal at the end. It's far more like one of Margaret Atwood's recent novels, with a gentle twist and a mildly fantastical bent giving extra shape to what's more properly a subtle, moving story about people and their emotions, and how they express them, and why they don't, and all that gets lost to the years as a result. Once again, it's amazing how Ishiguro says so much, and so well, about people who themselves say so little.