John Mullan in The Guardian:
A few years ago in a panel discussion at a literary festival I was asked to name a recent British novel that readers and critics would still be talking about in a hundred years’ time. On the spur of the difficult moment I plumped for Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Only as I tried to explain my choice did I realise why I had given this answer. It was not just a novel I enjoyed and admired, it was also a novel that enacted something elementary and elemental: a human’s need to imagine his or her origins. The Swedish Academy has made some dubious – and last year attention-seeking – decisions in recent years, but this year its 18 voters have got it right. While the choice has come as a surprise to some – Ishiguro at 62 is relatively youthful; he was not on the list of bookies’ favourites being touted in the press – in literary fact it is not. The Nobel prize for literature, according to the official wording, is for “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. Translated from the original Swedish, it is an awkward phrase, but does suggest something important: that the prize should reward universality rather than topicality, literature about the way we always live, not just the way we live now. Ishiguro’s novels step aside from contemporary mores and pressing social issues. Audaciously, sometimes bewilderingly, they abstract us from our times.
How brilliant it is that Never Let Me Go opens with a page that says only “England, late 1990s”. Narrated by a young woman who is a clone, created, like her fellow clones, to provide organs for those requiring transplant surgery, it takes place in a version of Britain both cosily provincial and utterly strange. The countryside, the liberal boarding school, the English seaside town have never made for such a disturbing backdrop. Similarly, the novel that made him famous, The Remains of the Day, took a character familiar from a hundred English books and films – the butler in a country house – and gave him a narrative of painstaking evasiveness. For all the teasing period detail, it was a novel about human self-denial and self-deception at any time and in any place.