How to write a book like a Nobel prize winner?
What can a close reading of Never Let Me Go, by Nobel Prize in literature winner Kazuo Ishiguro teach you as a Fiction writer? It is a book that I have read and re-read, not in a comfort reading sort of way, but in a this book is haunting me and I like it kind of way. As a reader I am happy to simply immerse myself in the book. As a writer I want to know why it is having this impact on me.
So what is it that Kazuo Ishiguro does when he writes a book? Lets go back to school shall we?
Writing tips on Genre:
NLMG fits into the category of Speculative Fiction. Like the other very best works in this genre it uses elements from the present and takes an imaginative leap; and by doing so allows us to take a critical look at ourselves. First published in 2005 – the novel is set in a version of Britain in the 1990’s. The issues it delves into, much like The Handmaid’s Tale and Blade Runner make it very much a story of today and tomorrow.
A writer’s reading of Never Let Me Go:
Anne Charnock’s debut novel, A Calculated Life, was a finalist for the 2013 Philip K. Dick and Kitschies Golden Tentacle Awards. I asked her about how reading the novel had influenced her as a writer.
Never Let Me Go is a close observation of childhood and a deeply upsetting book questioning what Ishiguro describes as the ancient question: What is it to be human? I read the novel as soon as it was released because I was already an Ishiguro fan and I was intrigued that he’d ventured into speculative fiction. At the time, I’d substantially drafted my first novel, A Calculated Life, and I was anxious about how I would pitch it to a literary agent or publisher. My novel seemed out of step with other SF novels being published around that time. But reading Never Let Me Go gave me a confidence boost because it was character-driven, introspective, a coming-of-age story set in a in a recognisable world, as was my novel.
Writing tips on Theme:
The subject matter for Never Let Me Go – the ethics of cloning and the nature of what it is to be human. Which is fascinating, but not in itself unique. My obsession with the book is not due to the issues in themselves. So how come this book keeps drawing me back in? Below is a breakdown of elements that come together to form the book. At the very end I attempt to outline what the tantilising magic extra ingredient that pushes the Ishiguru into Nobel prize winning status might be .
Writing tips on Setting:
Instead of creating a whole new universe to set his story in Ishiguro uses a familiar yet creepy setting. Ishiguro’s narrative builds a world that you know – yet slowly reveals that you do not know it at all. It is genius to house his characters childhoods in a the oh so nostalgic world of the British boarding school – But Hailsham is not Hogwarts (where there may be many dangers but the good will always triumph) or a place of Blytonesque midnight feasts.
Hailsham – has many secrets and the fates of its ‘students’ are not of their own making.
Writing tips on Characters:
The story centres around Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, young people who are growing up, exploring relationships, jealousies, hormones and trying to find their place in the world – they may not always be likable, but they are relatable characters.
And yet, one of their guardians says ‘I myself had to fight back my dread of you all almost every day I was at Hailsham. There were times I’d look down at you all from my study window and I’d feel such revulsion…’ (p.264)
Like with the setting Ishiguro uses the ‘familiar yet creepy’ technique when he writes his central characters. They could be all of us, but they are not and it makes us turn the pages to discover their (our?) fate.
Writing tips on Narrative Voice:
The novel is written in first person and is narrated by Kathy H. Her point of view gives the reader a limited perspective. We know and are told what she knows.
One of the challenges to this type of narrative voice is illuminating areas of the story that are beyond the narrators point of view – and yet Ishiguro turns this into positive. We are searching out the truth of Kathy’s life with her. This is I think one of they key elements to the success of the book. It is at once brilliant and frustrating (again keeping us turning the pages).
A writer’s guide to Exposition:
There is hardly any ‘explaining’ in NLMG, but what little exposition there is is left until almost the very end of the book. We, like Kathy wander through her memories in a fog of limited understanding until Kathy and Tommy go to visit the guardians. The exposition given holds true to the rest of the book and is highly elliptical. It comes in the form of short bursts of conversation, which constantly threaten to end before they reveal what feels like enough information for poor Kathy and Tommy, and for the reader.
Writing tips on Narrative Structure:
The story consists of vignettes and flashbacks. There are three main time periods covered within the story and these can be broken up into: Hailsham, the cottages and the care centres. The story is woven around these within Kathies remembrances.
It is hard to get this right, and can be confusing if you don’t ‘signpost’ the timeshifts well. Like the limitations of the limited point of view, Ishiguro turns the possible negative into a positive. These glimpses of small moments of Kathy’s life, as she looks back on it as a thirty one year old, force the reader to piece the story together for themselves and keeps them firmly rooted in Kathy’s point of view.
A writer’s guide to the Magic:
I write that with a little tongue in cheek. The magic of any book is just that. An illusive, and highly individual quality that is hard to put ones finger on. But let me write about what I suspect is an element of Ishigur’s magic:
I believe it is the amount he trusts his readers.
Nothing is overstated or thrust under the readers nose, he simply leaves the windows wide open for the reader to cogitate. He trusts the reader to put the pieces together and this gives his writing a profound subtlety and restraint.
He takes all the elements outlined above and uses them to underpin this magic. There are many things Kathy herself can not see, can not allow herself to think about. And those things which dart away just when they are glimpsed are left with the reader long after the book has gone back onto the bookshelves.
Would you like your writing to do that?
I know I would.
5 thoughts on “A writer’s guide to reading Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro”
I love this! I absolutely agree Never Let Me Go has a certain magic about it.
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Always great to come across others who ‘get’ our favorite books isn’t it- a kind of magic in itself!
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[…] My top books list has somehow ended up being almost all sci-fi: – Never let me go, Kuzo Ishiguro– haunting vision of humanity gone awry. – Making History, Stephen Fry- mr clever pants […]
Great breakdown of how this novel really ‘works.’ How do you compare it to other Ishiguro?
Thanks Sarah. I think Remains of the Day and The Buried Giant both demonstrate Ishiguro’s skill for restrained storytelling. They are the only two others I have read, and each very different. I found The Buried Giand the hardest to ‘get into’. Happy to have recomendations on what I should read next.