Each month, American Express Essentials highlights one definitive literary work, old or new, and across any and all genres. The only determinant is quality: a book that makes life more vivid, more inspiring – a gifted piece of work you want to share. An absolute must-read. 

Up this month is a modern masterpiece about memory, friendship, ethics, love and the human condition. Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro is at his best in Never Let Me Go – but beware, this book is not all it seems.  

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is the kind of brilliant, thought-provoking book you sort of wish you’d never picked up. It’s so unsettling at times, you have to stop reading to catch a mental break from the horror – which, in the best Ishiguro fashion, is never obvious, never explicit, never in-your-face or overtly apparent. Instead, it bleeds slowly and assuredly into pages about a pleasant English countryside, or the peaceful grounds of a boarding school where a young girl sings along to the tunes of an old cassette tape. Ishiguro never tells you what you should be afraid of, or downright horrified at, but you know. Just like, when you first start reading, all you really know is that you don’t know.

Hailsham seems like your regular English boarding school. The only difference is that the children who attend here know there’s a reason they’re so special. The kids are cared for, treated well and educated in the arts. They play sports and partake in all sorts of normal kid activities. They just don’t have much to do with the world beyond the school grounds.

It’s within these grounds that Kathy H grows from a girl into a young woman. It’s where her mind most often goes back to. It’s where she meets her closest friends, Tommy and Ruth, and where our story begins. Except not really, because the story truly begins years down the road, when Kathy has already been working as a carer for more than eleven years.

This book is categorised as science-fiction, but if there’s one thing you shouldn’t do, it is to go into it expecting to find typical elements of the genre. While sci-fi components are present in the story, they’re not really the focus, and you’ll likely find it lacking in that aspect if you’re a sci-fi purist. This book is not Ishiguro’s attempt at writing a sci-fi thriller. It’s so much more than that.

What you should do instead is prepare yourself mentally and emotionally to be confronted with questions about the meaning of a human life – what we do with it, and how we choose to deal with its inevitable end, or “completion”. This is not the book for you if that particular subject is one you don’t want to be confronted with just yet. Or if you’re going through a deep existential crisis. The desolate horror and hopelessness of Kathy’s conflicted internal (and external) world might be unbearable.

That being said, what really struck us to our core about this book is the quietness and resignation that accompany Kathy throughout her life. Even when she finds out the horrible truth (and horrible it is) about her upbringing and her raison d’être, she never really protests, never rebels, never says “no”. She does what she’s supposed to do, no more questions asked. There’s only really one moment when she goes beyond what she’s supposed to do, but even then, any sliver of hope is squandered, crushed, most cruelly. Ishiguro’s commentary on or admonishment of humanity? Maybe. Kathy endures, and it is chilling.

Of course, this lack of defiance doesn’t mean Kathy is without depth or emotion. On the contrary, it’s her complex inner emotional world that makes this book truly great. The reader gets to follow Kathy as she transitions from naive child to a girl falling in love, then into her adulthood outside of Hailsham, where she assumes her position as carer.

In many ways, one could say Never Let Me Go is a coming-of-age story, and it’s impossible not to have sympathy for Kathy. Sensitive and gentle Kathy. Resilient Kathy. It’s really hard not to be on her side, even when sometimes her interpretation or recollection of events might be a little unreliable.

Through it all, it’s her recount of the old days, her memories, that drives the story further – and into the realm of modern classics. We experience Kathy’s quiet resignation and how she accepts her sordid purpose as ordinary. We feel her powerlessness as she watches donor after donor “complete”, how trivial and common and ordinary even the cruellest aspects of her world seem to her. Ishiguro reveals her emotional distress throughout the plethora of recollections about her life experience. There’s Kathy at school, and then there are Ruth and Tommy – Tommy and his anger, Ruth and her spite (completely understandable, of course). And there are art classes and competitions and make-believe games to pass the time – and then there are the Cottages, and the recollection of some unimportant boys, and there’s short-lived hope… And then there is acceptance. And donor after donor after donor. If you’re one for nostalgia or remembrance, this book will likely speak to you and may even become one of your favourites – but not without first causing emotional distress.

One could argue that Never Let Me Go is about what happens when science doesn’t go hand in hand with ethics, and of course eugenics play a big role in Ishiguro’s successful novel. But this book goes beyond a sci-fi narrative or a moral tale. It’s a story about love and a love story, it’s a mystery that keeps you turning page after page even when reading becomes difficult or overwhelming, and it’s the seemingly unimportant story of a woman who tries to understand her past and present. But, oh, how important it is.

Ishiguro is a master of storytelling. No – he’s a master of storyshowing. If there’s one thing he won’t do (at least in this book) it is to answer the questions that he inevitably raises in the reader’s mind. There are no certainties, no absolutes, no “this is what I mean for you to understand”. What better example than the words of the Hailsham “guardian” when she tells the kids: “The problem, as I see it, is that you’ve been told and not told. You’ve been told, but none of you really understand, and I dare say, some people are quite happy to leave it that way.”

Instead of telling, Ishiguro foreshadows and gives weight to the emptiness, to words never uttered and feelings left trapped inside. He crafts an atmosphere that’s at the same time vague and resolute, and which stays with you long after you’ve closed the cover of his tale. This book ensnares you and then completely shatters you from the inside. In a way, you’ll be glad it did. It’s outstanding like that.

EXPLORE FURTHER: What To Read & Watch

If you fell in love with Ishiguro’s prose, you have to get your hands on The Remains of the Day. If it was the dystopian element of the novel that drew you in, try George Orwell’s 1984. You can also check out the 2010 film adaptation of Never Let Me Go, starring Carey Mulligan as Kathy, with Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield in the roles of Ruth and Tommy.

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