Review: Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

I saw the film before I read the book, though it’s been on my shelf for years.  I remember it being a big noise in 2005 but I had no clue what it was about and when I tried reading it while I was doing my undergrad, I just got bored and set it down to read ‘some other time’.  This time, I read it in a day and a half – the Rail Replacement Bus service this week has really helped me get through stuff.  This is an interesting book and I definitely found the central character appealing but I’m not sure I liked it.  It’s the same issue that I had with The Remains of the Day, also by Ishiguro – it’s just so unremittingly sad.  Remains of the Day is the story of a repressed butler never ever declaring his love for his housekeeper colleague, ending with him still not declaring his love for her even though she knows it and also can’t speak up either.  I finished that one and was absolutely furious that I’d let it waste my time (for similar reactions, read The Turn of the Screw – actually no, don’t bother, don’t do that to yourself).  

Kathy, Ruth and Tommy in the film version.
Never Let Me Go might have been a different reading experience for me had I not seen the film.  The central concept did not come out in increments as it does in the book, because I already knew about it via the film.  Basically, the story is told by Kathy who is recounting the events of her life.  She grew up in a boarding school and indeed a very idyllic British boarding school picture is painted, a world of perpetual sunshine and lounging around on the playing fields.  But all is not what it seems; they are never allowed to leave the grounds and they slowly become aware as they grow up that they have been created with a purpose.  That purpose is to be healthy and keep their bodies pure  because after finishing with school, they will be donating their organs to the wider population.  All of the students are clones created for this purpose.  The central three characters are Kathy, her best friend Ruth and Ruth’s boyfriend Tommy who Kathy loves too.  After school, the three of them are sent to live in the Cottages, a sort of residential centre for clones waiting to start donating.  
Kathy is, as I said, a very likeable narrator.  Hats off to Ishiguro for creating a believable female, not many male authors can do that (it’s a bugbear of mine).  He manages to capture a lot of verbal mannerisms very naturally and there is a real flow to her story and a wonderful level of detail.  Her description of Hailsham does make it seem like a truly idyllic place to grow up yet it is clear that her telling the story is as much as Kathy as it is about her imaginary audience; Kathy is trying to piece together the sequence of events and how she came to be where she is now – awaiting her death with calm acceptance.  The system of donations seemed to be that before donating, clones would send time caring for other donors and Kathy is just about to finish a twelve year Caring career.  What’s interesting about Kathy’s narration is her own insecurity about her version of the story, frequently pointing out that other people remember events differently and wondering about alternative viewpoints.  This does not however give an impression of an intentionally unreliable narrator, but rather of a lonely woman who has at the age of 31 reached the stage that only the extreme elderly should ever reach – everybody she has ever known has died and she nobody to check her recollections with any more.  
I did wonder to myself the other day about this whole clone concept and whether it was darkly possible.  At first, I was confidently dismissive because after all just think about all the fuss there is over vivisection.  Then I remembered that it’s the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals but just the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children so would people really kick up that big of a fuss?  And technically, all this donating stuff is happening with the Donors’ consent.  But then I cheered up a bit remembering that scientifically human cloning does look a bit improbable.  Plus, from a medical stand-point it would have made more sense to wait til they were about fifteen or so and have all the donations start then; Kathy is thirty-one when she is telling the story, her organs are well past their sell-by date.  Not to mention the amount of government funding necessary to raise that many clones and keep them fed given that they never seemed to have to do any work … no, once you get into the economics it would be absolutely impossible.  
Young Ruth and Kathy, Never Let Me Go, 2010
Really, this book is just making a very depressing point about what you can persuade people to do under the right circumstances, i.e. the Hailsham students and their counterparts from other centres are willingly giving up their lives because they know that this is what is expected from them.  They have no alternative so they never even really speak out against it.  The central dilemma is not about the barbarity of the system but rather their acceptance of it.  Two of their childhood teachers/guardians had disagreed over the best approach to help the children deal with their future.  The head guardian had decided that it was best to allow them to lose themselves in their art and creativity to better enjoy their childhoods while the younger Miss Lucy had thought this dishonest and that the children should be made aware in the most brutal way possible that they were going to die young.  In later life, even Tommy and Kathy were unsure about which way would have been better.  
It struck me as poignant that the only time Kathy ever lets herself do something ‘self-indulgent’, she collects herself afterwards goes back to ‘wherever [she] was supposed to be’.  The donors’ lives were always directed and supervised and they almost seem not to mourn their lack of freedom, only occasionally drifting into daydream.  Tommy’s flares of temper suggest an internal struggle but even that was unusual – it was a very private despair at the world dismissing them as worthless.  It made me wonder about their own nature as clones.  In the film, there are times such as when ordering food in a restaurant where it is suggested that the clones have very little free will or ability to make decisions and I wondered if this was due to their upbringing or if it was due more to the very fact that they were clones.  

This was a well-written book with an engaging protagonist but it was not a very warm story and ultimately I felt that it was musing on an issue which required a suspension of disbelief too far.  We are in an alternative reality where cloning is possible and is used in a brutal manner but it’s not really science fiction because it’s a ‘musing on the nature of mankind’ sort of story, but you have to change so many of the variables to reach the dilemma of this novel that it’s not as if you really go away feeling like your view of humanity has actually altered.  Bluntly, The Remains of the Day was better.
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Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Published by Faber & Faber on January 8th 2009
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Science Fiction, General
Pages: 304
ISBN: 9780571249381

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