The passage under consideration is taken from Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go, which is a study of dystopian society in which human clones are produced for the purpose of providing organs for their human counterparts.
The passage is set in a recognisably contemporary wold, one in which a driver has to ‘consult the map a number of times’ when trying to locate the destination at the end of the journey. The lack of electronic navigation suggests a period prior to the present day, and even slightly in the past when considered against the 2005 date of writing. In this it is comparatively unusual in that many of the best known Dystopian texts tend to be set either in a distant future or a distant past to enable a direct comparison with the present day. A novel such as John Wyndham’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ has a similar relationship to the contemporary society which is depicted and both gain from the apparent normality of all that is described.
The first person narrator tells the reader plenty about the setting of the passage – she often repeats herself and seems to be striving to add details in the long sentences, as though trying to compensate for the inherent unreliability of the first person voice. The setting of ‘The Kingsfield’, a name suggesting grandeur and freedom, is unsettling. It seems to be both secluded, being ‘out of the way’ and ‘awkward’ to find, yet it is not a place of peace: ‘You can always hear traffic on the main roads…’ says the narrator, as though speaking to a friend – the drop into the second person seeming to confer a relationship between the reader and the narrator. Not only is ‘recovery centre’ confusing as a general location, the description of the micro-settings are equally strange. A recovery centre suggests a convalescent environment, yet here the rooms are ‘too stuffy or too draughty’ they cannot allow wheelchair access and the bathrooms – ‘hard to keep clean’- suggest a lack of basic hygiene, let alone the hygiene expected of a medical institution. Indeed this down at hell feeling is more akin to the ‘old world’ elements of a narrative such as Zamyatin’s ‘We’, in which the old cottage stands as a contrast to the crisp new dwellings and apartments, much as this centre is compared with Ruth’s centre with ‘gleaming tiles and double glazed windows’. Even in that description there is no sense of care, however.
The narrator also explores the contrast between the function of the buildings in the past and their current use. Once a ‘holiday camp’, the centre is now in a dilapidated and ‘unfinished’ centre, yet it is described as ‘precious’ conferring some emotional attachment, here unexplained. This is reminiscent of the scenes in Orwell’s 1984 in which the protagonists find comfort in the dilapidated old room above the shop and believe that they have escaped from Big Brother, only to be caught out in the end. In this passage it is interesting that the narrator comments that the camp was intended for ‘ordinary families’. The suggestion is that the narrator is not from that background. No further information is given but there is a sense that the narrator and those like him/her are not worth the effort of completing the building alterations and are a devalued segment of society. This is heightened in the description of the pool and the diving board in particular. This last image seems to stand, regardless of any danger it might pose, and act as a magnet for the kind of thoughts expressed near the end of the passage: ‘taking a dive… only to crash…’. I tis as though it is a temptation to those inmates wishing to gain a sensation of freedom only to end up in pain or suffering a swift early death.
The narrator is not travelling alone. ‘Ruth’ is mentioned but seems to be little help. The narrative does not suggest she speaks and does not suggest she engages with the narrator. Indeed, we can surmise that the pair do not travel widely. Although the sound of the ‘big roads’ is clearly audible, the map has to be used to locate the centre. It is the narrator who has to ‘consult the map a number of times’ suggesting not only that he/she is in control of the journey but also that he/she is not a strong navigator. It is also unclear what the relationship is between the narrator and Tommy – the boy they are travelling to meet. One assumes he is a ‘donor’ since he seems to be an inmate, yet Ishiguro uses this term without offering any explanation. In this case, rather as with terms such as ‘recovery centre’ ordinary’ the reader sense a meaning which is hidden from us, but of which the narrator expects us to be aware. Whilst it is not unusual for Dystopian texts to be narrated by an everyman figure, this figure often seems to be a character of marked intelligence or scientific ability, such as H.G. Wells’ narrator in ‘The Time Machine’ or the protagonist of Zamyatin’s ‘We’. Even Winston Smith, who in many ways is a deeply unheroic figure, has a job of some responsibility and importance in ‘1984’. The narrator here seems to be garrulous and pleasant, but in no way a character of special note.
The language used is plain and matter of fact. Sentences are often extended by significant subordination and the addition of simple clauses after a dash to impart extra information: ‘the Square- the place where you drive in when you first arrive…- an example of this unfinished atmosphere-‘. In this example there is also the use of the second person as though to address the reader which helps to make the reader complicit in the narrative. Elsewhere the vocabulary is simple, sometimes deceptively so as discussed earlier, but usually suggesting a lack of range in the narrative style of the narrator. There is an informality in the contractions : ‘it’s’ , ‘can’t’ which also suggests that the narrator sees the reader as an equal and helps to build up the conversational tone of the piece.
Overall the atmosphere created on the ominously ‘overcast and chilly’ day is one of threat. Although the passage begins quite easily, the effect of the ‘shadowy’ figures, suggesting both threatening gangs of anonymous youths and even a slightly ghostly aspect, as though the former holiday makers are somehow reimagined in the new setting, it to create unease. When Tommy emerges, his clothes are old and ‘faded’ and he has put on significant weight. The two images together suggest ill health rather than health. This added to the highlighted difficulty in finding the centre helps to present a society which has been deliberately cut off from the mainstream or ‘ordinary’ families alluded to in the passage. Whereas in Brave New World or A Handmaid’s Tale, the centres for reproduction and other scientific advances are places of awe and fear, the emotion here is lesser. It is sadder, somehow. It suggests more neglect than ‘recovery’.
The passage in question: never-let-me-go-ch19