Kazuo Ishiguro in San Francisco

At first glance, Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, Don’t Let Me Go, appears to be a harmless story about the childhood of three friends growing up in an English boarding school.

But read a few chapters further, and there’s no denying that there’s something dark about these children beneath the idealistic exterior. But what exactly is it?

Even half way through the book, the reader is still asking questions, still unable to put down this spellbinding story or figure out exactly who these children are. Looking for answers to many of the book’s questions, fans recently gathered in to hear Ishiguro read and speak about his new release at A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Books, an independent bookstore in San Francisco.

When Ishiguro stepped up to the podium and bowed his head slightly to the applause, the audience immediately quieted down in anticipation. He thanked the audience with his gentlemanly quiet manner and began to read the first chapter of his new book. Although Ishiguro’s reading was at times hesitant and slightly choppy, the audience sat motionless, taken with his smart English accent. Seemingly tired of the material, Ishiguro’s voice often moved over the words too quickly or too slowly, as though he had read over it too many times previously.

After his reading, Ishiguro’s voice smoothed over for the Question and Answer portion of the evening, but his demeanor nonetheless reflected his reading. Completely at ease in front of the crowd and patient with their questions, Ishiguro’s answers were thoughtful and sincere, but were delivered with a breath of slight tedium. He paused with every question to order his thoughts and to present them carefully, but he lacked enthusiasm for the conversation, and seemed just a calm English gentleman who was generously meeting his public.

Ishiguro’s physical presence is just how one might imagine a brilliant novelist’s to be. Very sure of himself, but not at all pretentious, Ishiguro carefully listened to the audience’s questions, as a fair ruler might. The audience seemed to desire some kernel of wisdom from this man who was presenting his new work, a novel that closely examines simple human needs in a world where the characters only reach the age of 25 or 30. Kathy H., the narrator, leads the reader through her childhood and through the ultimate discovery of her fate.

Her memories start out innocuously enough in the safe world of an English boarding school, Hailsham, where Kathy H. and her friends were brought up. Her story leaves just enough unanswered questions to keep the reader turning the pages. There is something very mysterious and strange about these children. The reader wonders, why is it that their parents are never once mentioned? Why do they never leave Hailsham until they’re sixteen years old?

Through deliveries of both memories and insights from the present world of Kathy H., the reader soon realizes that putting the two time periods together is key to answering these questions. Ishiguro first became fascinated with the use of memory in telling a story when he discovered Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.

In the crowded bookstore he explained that “it was a revelation to tell a story through memory” and that he finds it provides “enormous freedom.” Adding ironically that he finds Proust “insufferable” to read, Ishiguro continues to plow through Proust’s masterpiece all the same. He insists that he was influenced more by Proust than by writers he is often compared to, such as Henry James or Jane Austen, or by one of his favorite authors since his teenage years, Dostoevsky.

Ishiguro reveals clues about Kathy H. and her friends slowly and carefully, building up the mystery so that when the reader finally does learn the truth, there is no turning back. Still, there are many unanswered questions for the reader. Ishiguro leaves many of the literal details unanswered about the character’s situation. How and why did this happen to these children?

How could this be possible in such a civilized world? But the author’s resistance to explicit detail only serves to emphasize the inside needs and desires of these innocent characters. When asked how he gets ideas for his stories, Ishiguro told the crowd that the beginning thought behind every book is an “abstract emotion.” Don’t Let Me Go began with the thought of how “it is sad that life passes so quickly, and how easy it is to waste life because we don’t have the perspective to see what we are doing.”

Life indeed passes much more rapidly for Kathy H., and she is forced to examine her needs and desires as a human with only about thirty years to live. Knowing that her destiny is unfair and undeserved, she nonetheless accepts it quietly.

As the reader, it is difficult to understand why she doesn’t battle against her fate. One gentleman stood up and asked Ishiguro why his characters don’t rebel. “These characters,” Ishiguro calmly explained, “don’t have the perspective to rebel. They are completely taken by the fact that they were created for this sole purpose of living, and they even take a quiet dignity and grace in fulfilling this purpose.”

When asked about the research he does on his novels, Ishiguro responded that he has an ambivalent attitude toward research. He investigates “imaginary worlds until they become clearer and clearer,” and explained that having a “hard journalistic approach to research interferes with the imaginary terrain.”

While his book When We Were Orphans pushed him to seek answers from his Japanese father, and to read history books for practical details, he ultimately pushed back those facts to make room for the “moods, atmosphere, and social laws” in the new story, which differed from the real world. To research Don’t Let Me Go, Ishiguro wrote practice passages, auditioned narrators, and tested approaches until he found the voice of Kathy H.

Ishiguro surprisingly places Kathy H.’s strange world in the recent past instead of in the future, and one gentleman questioned Ishiguro’s choice because so much of the book has a slight sci-fi quality to it. Ishiguro’s response was that he “has no real interest in imagining a future world.”

He prefers to present an “alternative history model, to imagine how the world would be different if the scientific breakthroughs after World War II had been in the biotechnology field.” In this way, he places the setting in a unique contemporary context, but he also manages to make it universal and timeless. “England in this book,” he explained, “is a bleached-out England. There are no Starbucks, no large cities, just half-forgotten seaside towns and quiet back roads.” There are no futuristic landscapes, just a very stylized England that each reader can imagine as the background in their own country.

Ishiguro’s universal truths are evident throughout the novel. The questions and problems that the characters face is common to us all: we can not escape the human condition. We all want our lives to be worthwhile, including Kathy H., but in the end, we cannot escape our ultimate destiny: death. The book explores this subject, but it also celebrates the simple wishes of the characters and the courage it takes to go after them.

The road to understanding Kathy H. is fascinating but haunting. Still, it is exactly what disturbs us about Kathy H. that allows us to connect to her so well. In the world of Ishiguro’s novel, we relate to Kathy H., but also understand that we are not truly like her, that we, in fact, are what created her. We feel the exact same emotions that she feels, and yet in the end, it is we who destroy her.

That is why her story is so disturbing and so completely brilliant. Ishiguro shows us that while we cannot escape death, we are still the master of our own destinies, at least as far as our perspectives will allow. We are all ultimately Kathy H.

At the end of the reading, Ishiguro sat at a table and patiently signed each patron’s stack of books, including my own. I asked Ishiguro about the last initial of Kathy H. and the others like her. Does the abbreviation signify a last name? Or is it more like a number?

Ishiguro nodded as he signed my books, and answered distractedly that he imagined that the first Kathy had been Kathy A., and then the next had been Kathy B., and so forth, as was true for each of the characters. His mind seemed elsewhere as he quickly signed my books and handed them back to me, as though he had already said good-bye to Kathy H. and the rest of the characters.

While Ishiguro has perhaps already moved on to his next novel, the eighth Kathy continues to act as a compelling ambassador between this skillful novelist and his readers.

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