I read Cloud Atlas with two contradictory impulses: first to let loose a yodel, dance a fandango, wrestle an alligator, seize strangers by the hair and hold them firmly until they, too, read this shockingly beautiful Matryoshka doll of a book; second, to pout alone in the darkness under my desk. My first reaction was as a dazzled reader who saw each movement of the book as David Mitchell one-upping himself with his genre-bending (historical, mystery, science fiction), his sublime prose, his broad and breathtaking ideas. The other was as a writer who was intimidated almost to petrification by the mere idea that such a book exists and was written by someone of my generation. It is hard not to make sweeping pronouncements after having lived this book, and, still under its spell three years after I read it, I would say: yes, yes, yes, this is the way novels should be written, with such electric ambition, with such exhilarating sweep.
They say that most novelists end up writing the same book over and over again: a truth which manifests itself differently in the work of different novelists. In the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro, it takes the form of an incredibly elegant formal unity.
Never Let Me Go, like The Remains of the Day and, to a lesser extent, When We Were Orphans, is a mystery in which a Martian-like, yet strangely affecting first-person narrator (a young female clone, an aging butler, a middle-aged celebrity detective) deciphers the dimly sensed evil (human organ-harvesting, Nazi collaboration, a family crime) underlying an idyllic quintessentially English institution (a beautiful manor house, a posh boarding school, the British colony in Shanghai). Despite the radically different settings, all the three novels share the same key formal elements: a painstakingly unraveled historical mystery, constructed on the time scale of a single human life; a journey to track down characters from the past who have survived, inconceivably, into the present; an unhappy love story; the haunting sense of a decayed idyll that remains, despite its historical rottenness, the locus of all the most beautiful and meaningful impressions in somebody’s life.
In Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro brilliantly and heartbreakingly executes the same retrospective plot in the unlikely chronotope of science fiction. This book made me cry for days. Did I feel a little bit exploited—did I feel that sci-fi rule-bending had been used to construct an otherwise inconceivably tragic story of doomed young love? I did, but it was worth it.