Let me start by saying that I really want to give this book ten out of five stars. Ishiguro has a talent for writing I can’t even hope to possess, which you’ll understand when I gush praises for Never Let Me Go—and I have what seems like an eternal fountain of them.
This book is not a light read. The beginning is somewhat light, but this isn’t something you read on the toilet (unless you really, really can’t put it down). This isn’t a happy book of sunshine and unicorns; it’s thought-provoking, and it will stick in your head for long after you read the last page.
As far as characters go, this was one of the best books I’ve read. I’d like to call this perfect, but a couple things did irk me just enough that, keeping objective quality in mind, I can’t call it perfect. For example, Ruth, the best friend. She was well portrayed, but not as well portrayed as she could’ve been. She felt a little distant sometimes. It made it difficult to understand some of her motivations.
I’ll start the bulk of this section with supporting characters. Ishiguro either outlines every character like a criminal profiler or has multiple personality disorder. Even the least significant supporting characters had their own personalities that shone—not as brightly as the three main characters’ personalities, but they all stuck out as individuals. So many authors take the easy way out and avoid using “extras.” Some accept the challenge, but too often do the minor characters pale too much in comparison to the main characters. Most are more like glorified cardboard cutouts—but not Ishiguro’s minor characters. Miss Lucy, Kathy’s friends, Madame, Miss Emily—they weren’t all especially minor, but they all were so distinct.
Another thing I loved was that there were no unnecessary characters. They all added something, even if they were only there for a single scene. Ishiguro used them to his advantage, using them to enhance the setting and build on the other characters, especially Ruth.
Tommy was awkward, but in a good way; it made him loveable. He starts out as the kind of kid who has tantrums and screaming fits, but he’s really a sweetheart, and that shows more and more as the book progresses and he matures. He has this innocence about him that you can’t help but love. Of all the characters in the book, he was definitely my favorite. (Sidenote: Andrew Garfield did a grand job playing him in the movie. The movie itself would only make sense to somebody who read the book, but the actors were glorious, especially Andrew Garfield.)
Ruth, as I already mentioned, was a bit distant at times, but she was still incredibly well written. Her personality made sense. The way she developed, too, was excellent (I won’t spoil that by explaining). My main annoyance was that Kathy sometimes described her as trying to make things better for all the Hailsham students in their various situations, but I couldn’t see it. I thought it seemed more like a desperate need to be loved, but like all art, I suppose that’s open to interpretation. As for how I felt about her as a character, I didn’t much like her, but that’s only because of her personality. In fact, if I were in Kathy’s position, I would’ve punched her in the face. Looking at her as a writer, reader, and appreciator of a fine character, however, she was pretty excellent.
Kathy, our protagonist and narrator, was definitely the right pick for who would tell the story. She’s a nurturer at heart. One might even call her a natural-born mother (ironic in two ways if you have/will read the book). It’s hard to tell much about her without spoiling things, but she seems like she shouldn’t be in this situation. It’s as if, out of all the people who populate this book, she saw the cruelest faces of fate and experienced the harshest ironies. She almost seems fragile, and she’s definitely lacking in self-confidence, but going back to the natural-born mother thing, she’s a lot like the rock to both of her friends.
My only real qualm about Kathy was her acceptance of things. It fit her character perfectly—it would’ve been wrong for her to fight, no matter how much the reader wants her to—but it still irked me. Like I said, I would’ve decked Ruth, and I wanted Kathy to at least shout at her a couple times, but that wasn’t in her character.
The emotion in this book varied. For the most part, it was up to the reader to feel out of sympathy, not the way the author used his words to change the tone. This is written like a memoir, so the tone is for the most part solemn because of Kathy’s foreknowledge of the dark truths revealed as the story progresses.
I don’t really have many complaints about this, except to go back to Kathy accepting things too easily. Considering her personality, the situation, and the way they’re raised, it all makes sense, but at the same time, I started to wish Kathy’s narration would convey more emotion than just this solemn sense of loss and hopelessness. It worked, but it did get irksome.
What was nice, though, was that I never got overwhelmed. I sometimes read a book and feel like I’m being assaulted with a firehose; the barrage doesn’t let up even once. It’s nice to be gripped by a story like that, but a book like this one is refreshing. It captured my attention incredibly well, but it didn’t have to keep constant action going to hold me enamored. The emotion was gradual in becoming that OMG-if-I-get-up-to-pee-I’m-bringing-the-damn-book-with-me-and-reading-while-I-walk-to-the-john. It was nice.
The setting for this book was an almost-modern dayEngland, except with an altered history. As with about 70% of this book, giving away much of that altered history ruins it, so I’ll just say that it’s scientific, not one of those books where somebody else wins a war or a ruler gets killed before doing something important. It’s more subtle, so subtle that the events in the book could be happening now and non-English folk such as myself wouldn’t even know it if it were some super-secret English thing.
Hailsham is described at just the right pace. I often get frustrated by info-dumping, but Ishiguro managed to deliver information as necessary while not withholding too much. I had a very clear picture in my head of Kathy’s world, although it wasn’t exactly the same as other people’s visualizations might’ve been. Ishiguro left enough to the imagination that Hailsham and the cottages could very well be different to you from what they are to me. This category is subjective, really.
The plot moved smoothly throughout. At some points, it felt a little slow, but only because I’m personally more used to faster-paced books. The events happened because they were supposed to happen, and they developed the story beautifully. Seeing as this is written like a memoir, we do get some skipping around: Kathy will go from a more present-day sort of story to one of the stories of Hailsham. And yet, Ishiguro does something most authors just fail at 99% of the time. He jumps around with the precision of a master. The way he jumps around unfolds the plot the way it should unfold; it’s not massively frustrating. We receive information as we need it. While I occasionally wasn’t sure how old the character were supposed to be at the time, he wrote them in a way that shows the reader how old they are through dialogue, actions, and thoughts, so one doesn’t take long to figure it out.
Oh, the writing. This had to be one of the most wonderful books I’ve ever read. Certain things remained very understated. Ishiguro doesn’t smack you in the face with whatever point he’s trying to get across. Sentences don’t ramble on and on. While the paragraphs were occasionally on the longer side, it didn’t suffer from Block of Text syndrome. The writing had the wistful, sad tone of a memoir, and this was completely appropriate considering Kathy’s story. If it had had the action-y, quick-paced feel of your average novel, it wouldn’t have had nearly the same impact as it did.
Overall, I have to give this book a 4.5 of 5. I wish I could give it a five, but certain things force me to dock a couple points. That doesn’t take away from the fact that this book is amazing and you need to read it, though. Like, seriously. It’s incredible.