By Kazuo Ishigur
To draw a parallel between young students at a fictional school deep in the English countryside and incarcerated persons at San Quentin — the very real, oldest state prison in California — should be an unimaginable stretch. But after reading Never Let Me Go, the excellent novel by British writer Kazuo Ishiguro, this comparison seems uncannily accurate.
Set in the “late 1990s,” Kathy, 31, tells the flashback story of the time in which she and her friends lived at Hailsham, a coed boarding school in the English countryside. The institution, one of the country’s great “privileged estates,” places a great emphasis on arts and crafts, and on essay writing and poetry.
The novel’s first part centers on school life, the second part on the few weeks after Kathy graduates, and the third part on her working life in the narrative’s present. The flashback structure makes it clear that Kathy’s experience at Hailsham defines every part of her existence, from its beginning up to its end.
Hailsham’s outstanding faculty offers a wide variety of classes and extracurricular activities. The students respect each other according to artistic ability and creativity, and the school encourages students to value all creative work, even a nine-year-old’s poetry of “funny little lines, all misspelt.”
The privileges of Hailsham extend into Kathy’s 11 years of post-Hailsham work as a “carer,” a job that takes her to surgery “recovery centers” from Britain’s Channel coast to North Wales. Her narration wanders from first- to second- to third-person, giving the reader a calm and rational description of her life.
Hailsham has an excellent reputation as a caring and nurturing institution. A critical scene shows a dying patient in Kathy’s care who “desperately” did not “want reminding [of the similar institution in which he had grown up]. Instead, he wanted to hear about Hailsham” so that he could die happy, hearing about the school.
“Privileged estates,” does not mean that the students come from privileged families — none of them do. Hailsham charges no exorbitant tuition for them to enjoy the institution’s blessings. The issues that the novel exposes fall squarely into the realm of society, the wider world outside of Hailsham.
Halisham feels similar to San Quentin in the way the school treats its students. Hailsham does not treat them like Kathy’s dying patient’s institution treated him. Instead, it gives them ways to evince their undeniable humanity, much in the same way San Quentin does for the incarcerated people who live there.
The fictional Britain of Ishiguro’s genre-defying pastiche needs institutions like Hailsham as a matter of survival. In the same way, California needs institutions like San Quentin to survive. The novel ultimately comments not on the institution’s reason for existence, but on its qualities and its varying states of grace.
Hailsham’s dual emphasis on the arts and education parallels the programming at San Quentin. The novel highlights the benefits of institutions that have a great array of arts and education programs, such as the ones at San Quentin that are generously provided by William James Association and other donors.
Should San Quentin have colleges like Mount Tamalpais and Coastline and its many other learning opportunities? Should it have rehabilitation programs like GRIP? Should it offer resources like Ear Hustle and Humans at San Quentin in which incarcerated persons can attest to their humanity?
Anyone who answers affirmatively and who supports such endeavors should read this book. Why do incarcerated persons participate in such programs if not to prove exactly the same point the students at Hailsham have confirmed, a point that Miss Emily and Madame express so acutely at the novel’s climax?
In 2017, Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and no review of his oeuvre seems complete without mentioning his greatest work The Remains of the Day, which holds a place on many lists of greatest books ever written. His name belongs on a list of most influential postmodern novelists of all time.
Never Let Me Go stands as a reflection for workers, volunteers, and financial donors to arts and education programs at San Quentin. Ishiguro could very well have written this masterwork for them and they should read it if only for validation of their deeds — and their generosity.
More importantly, the novel also stands as a strong warning for financial donors considering decreasing their giving in these uncertain times and for volunteers who recently cut back on time spent at San Quentin. They should read it before making any final decisions about reducing their involvement.