One of the things you figure out pretty quickly about Kathy H., the narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro's devastating new novel, "Never Let Me Go," is that that's really her name. It's not an arch literary device, and Kathy isn't hiding anything. Like the other students at Hailsham, a peculiar boarding school somewhere in the English countryside -- Kathy doesn't quite know where -- she just has a first name followed by an initial. Once you've got that fact in your grasp, the wrenching and suspenseful skein of "Never Let Me Go" begins to unfold before you. It's a shame to give much of this novel away, but it's even more of a shame not to entice you into reading it.
Ishiguro, the Japanese-born British author of "The Remains of the Day," "An Artist of the Floating World" and several other novels, has a reputation as a difficult and serious writer that isn't doing him any favors. True, his books aren't exactly lighter-than-air confections and his endings tend toward the mercilessly downbeat, but he's one of the few literary authors with the storytelling chops of popular fiction. (One also thinks of Margaret Atwood, Denis Johnson and Robert Stone.) "Never Let Me Go" is a work of meticulous, pitch-perfect writing, but it's also an obsessive page turner that kept me up almost till dawn and left me feeling emotionally shattered.
Kathy is now an adult of 31, recalling her Hailsham years and her two best friends, Ruth and Tommy, who were the other two legs of an unstable teenage romantic triangle. These characters are so convincingly rendered, and the incestuous, quasi-Gothic atmosphere of Hailsham so lovingly captured, that "Never Let Me Go" would still make a compelling read if that was all there was to the story. Ruth is the domineering alpha-female type; she recruits Kathy to a secret society when they're about 8 -- and later expels her -- and always has to have the last word on every subject, from chess to sex to the fiction of George Eliot (even if she can't play chess, is a virgin, and hasn't read "Daniel Deronda").
Tommy is an entirely different matter. He's the school's star athlete, but is so hot-tempered and childlike in manner that the other boys torment him until Ruth and Kathy adopt him and groom him to be more socially presentable. Most of "Never Let Me Go" tracks the evolving relationship of these three as they move through Hailsham and then out into the world, but their teenage passions and enthusiasms are increasingly shadowed by the larger question of their destiny -- theirs and those of every other Hailsham student.
We know from the very first page that present-tense Kathy is a "carer," and that the people she cares for are "donors." In her cheerful, good-English-girl manner, she notes that hardly any of her donors "have been classified as 'agitated,' even before fourth donation." That means just what it sounds like, and it makes things 10 times worse that Kathy is completely unaware (or, let's say, almost completely) that the world she's living in is a horror story come to life. If "Never Let Me Go" is set, as Ishiguro stipulates, in late-'90s England, it's not quite the '90s that we remember. Instead, it seems to be a society that stumbled, some decades earlier, down a terrible technological path that makes Dr. Mengele look like a humanitarian.
It might be technically correct to describe this novel as dystopian science fiction or a parable about contemporary life that addresses some social issue (fill in the blank yourself). As a Hollywood formula, I guess you could boil this down to "1984" meets "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie." But that's not really fair. Ishiguro is far more interested in capturing the subjective reality of Kathy and her chums, who are, as one of their Hailsham teachers says, "told but not told" about what awaits them -- and who, like all children, more or less accept the terms of their existence.
Still, as they grow older, they begin to confront the fact that they are not like "normal people": They are human beings who have no parents and who will have no children, and none of them will make it long past the beginning of middle age. (In the bureaucratic dialect Ishiguro has created, successful donors do not die, they "complete" -- and what lies beyond that is the subject of a troubling rumor.) At Hailsham and other places like it (other places that may be much worse) they are being raised for one purpose alone.
Why, then, are the Hailsham students being educated so well? What about the rumors of a girl in Wales allowed to work in a stylish clothing boutique, or all the mysterious emphasis placed on their creative work as writers and artists? (One teacher tells them it may be used as "evidence" -- but evidence of what?) Like all the best speculative fiction -- and this is one of the best new novels of any species I've read in a long time -- "Never Let Me Go" has a mystery to unfold, or several of them.
But Ishiguro isn't searching for the moral high ground. His darkest mysteries are, to coin a phrase, those of the human heart. If you shed tears for upright, stolid Kathy and honest, tormented Tommy and even for vainglorious, conniving Ruth, it won't be because of the oddities of their Kafkaesque situation but because, like all of us, they are lonely and alone, doing their best to walk the cliff edge of life against a raging gale.
Our next pick: A cocktail of drug abuse, adultery and professional modeling makes for a crazily entertaining read