It's almost impossible to describe Never Let Me Go without giving too much away. Author Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day) has painstakingly constructed the story so that key information filters through in a series of hints and implications. The more things become clear, the less they're understood, until finally the novel's slowly building sense of dread reaches a conclusion that, although not exactly surprising, is that much worse because you knew it was coming.
It's the late 1990s, and Kath H. is reminiscing about growing up in her exclusive boarding school, Hailsham, with her friends Ruth and Tommy. An experimental institution in rural England, the school encouraged creativity in its students to an almost oppressive degree—failure to churn out consistently high-level artwork was grounds for being teased by fellow students. Kath's narration provides other clues that Hailsham is no ordinary boarding school: the students are told they will never have children, and that while smoking is bad for everyone, it's "much, much worse" for them. Then there are the oblique references to what lies ahead when the students leave Hailsham and become "donors."
But mostly, the students do what students everywhere do—giggle, bicker, explore their sexuality, dream about what they're going to be when they grow up. It's almost mundane, except for the haunting knowledge of a dark future that creeps in now and then. Like the students, you sort of know what's going on, and little by little you start to figure out the grim context of their idyllic childhoods.
It's important not to give away the details, but the novel's stunning poignancy is no secret. In creating Hailsham and its inhabitants, Ishiguro has compressed everyday life to show a fast-forward version of what we all dread, the terrifying certainty of losing everyone and everything we love. But thanks to the richness of Kath, Ruth and Tommy's short lives, you leave the book feeling that, given half a chance, even we doomed creatures can carve out small moments of beauty and meaning.
Becky Ohlsen is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.