It took me a week to read the first 100 pages of this book. Then I finished the rest of it in a day. It takes a while to get going, but when it’s good, it’s really good.
This is a difficult novel to review because the synopsis is misleading and doesn’t give enough information, but giving too much information will ruin the surprises. I think the book would have been easier for me to get into if I had known more about what was coming. The narrator has a very slow, meandering storytelling style. I kept wondering why I should care about her and her strange childhood. I think the book would have held my attention better if I had some idea about what was going on.
Basically, Never Let Me Go is set in an alternate-history 1970s – 1990s England. Human cloning is an accepted part of life. The narrator, Kathy, is working for hospitals when she reconnects with two of her old school friends, Ruth and Tommy. Her old friends are now patients who she is assigned to care for. Kathy starts reminiscing about Hailsham, the odd, secluded boarding school where she and her friends grew up.
I found the beginning of the book to be really slow, but I was hugely impressed with the author’s ability to write realistic child character. The characters have distinctive personalities. Ruth is a manipulative leader who’ll do whatever it takes to fit in. Tommy is mentally slower than the other kids and has a fiery temper, but he can also be innocent and sweet. Kathy doesn’t put up with crap from either of them. They spend a lot of time arguing and storming away from one another in a huff, but like real children, they forgive each other quickly. The characters are so lifelike that it was easy to see myself and my childhood friends reflected in them. Just like real children, the characters drift apart as they get older and meet new (and less volatile) people.
If you’re a writer who wants to create believable young characters, you need to read this book immediately.
“It never occurred to me that our lives, until then so closely interwoven, could unravel and separate over a thing like that. But the fact was, I suppose, there were powerful tides tugging us apart by then, and it only needed something like that to finish the task. If we'd understood that back then—who knows?—maybe we'd have kept a tighter hold of one another.” - Never Let Me Go
The plot isn’t super unique. If you’ve read other books that involve cloned characters, you can probably guess what happens. However, the way that the author handles the clone plot is unlike any other book about clones I’ve read. Never Let Me Go is probably the most thematically interesting book I’ve come across so far in 2016.
This book is about culture and how we can be so sheltered by our own culture that we don’t question the things that happen to us. We accept cultural oddities because everyone around us does. Sometimes, an event or idea has been around for so long that we just go along with it without thinking. It can be difficult to spot strange ideas in your own world.
At the end of the book, the characters get a chance to talk to people outside of their boarding school culture. They are surprised to find out that the cultural norms that they never questioned are seen as controversial by the outside world. People were fighting to change the characters’ way of life, and the characters never knew that their lives were contentious. Everything that happened was normal to them.
“You have to accept that sometimes that's how things happen in this world. People's opinions, their feelings, they go one way, then the other. It just so happens you grew up at a certain point in this process.” - Never Let Me Go
“The problem, as I see it, is that you've been told and not told. You've been told, but none of you really understand, and I dare say, some people are quite happy to leave it that way.” - Never Let Me Go
I think this book is about the danger of being blinded by your own culture. The alternate-history setting helps drive home that point. The setting is comfortingly familiar—it’s our world—but there are strange things happening in it. This book encourages you to look at your world from a different perspective. By the time you notice that something is wrong, it could be too late to change it. Ask questions and pay attention to life outside of your own boarding school.
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro, author; Rosalyn Landor, narrator
This novel is set in England, and deep into the novel, the reader will realize it takes place some time in the future. Although it is science fiction, it is really interesting since in one form or another, it could be a reality one day soon. The title of the book comes from a music tape of the singer Judy Bridgewater, which was coveted by a character named Kathy H. One day, her tape of the Bridgewater love songs disappears. It seems like an unimportant moment, but as the novel proceeds, the third song on the tape with the words, “Baby, baby, never let me go”, from the title song, “Never Let Me Go”, takes on a deeper meaning with the passage of time. In a sense, the message of the book is about the varied kinds of letting go life sometimes requires, even letting go of life itself.
When the novel begins, we meet Kathy H doing her job, caring for a donor who is recovering poorly from his last donation. As he grows weaker, he asks Kathy to tell him about Hailsham where she was lucky enough to be brought up and attend school. As she goes back in her memory, the readers learn more about her childhood and soon begin to understand what she is, what she does, and what her future holds in store. The readers are introduced to terms like guardians, possibles, normals, carers, donors and outside. All of these words have new meanings. Soon they will learn what it is that makes Kathy H so special.
At Hailsham, the student residents were educated well. They were given opportunities that were not universal in places that reared other children like them. Although they were confined to the area of the school and were not allowed to venture outside, they had full lives. They seemed like ordinary children who played pranks on each other and even played pranks on some of their guardians. They engaged in sporting events. They learned about sex and its pleasures, but they understood that they could not reproduce. Some of the children eventually paired off and became couples. Some just became good friends. However, at age 16, when they were sent to live in the Cottages, they often lost contact with each other. It was there that they learned what their next function was to be and they eventually went off into different directions to work. Tommy and Ruth were Kathy’s best friends at Hailsham, but once she became a carer and went out into the world outside, she lost touch with them. She was always so busy traveling from place to place to do her work, which she was very good at, and she remained a carer for what would eventually be 12 years, far longer than most carers. When she retired, she would be called upon to donate. She, too, would become a donor.
As Kathy explained what Hailsham was like, to the donor she was helping, the reader is drawn into the atmosphere that once was Hailsham and is introduced to many of the residents there. Kathy’s earliest memories go back to when she was age 4 or 5. Her two close friends were Tommy and Ruth. Eventually, Tommy and Ruth coupled off. Kathy often worried about Tommy’s well-being. She was patient and concerned about what his behavior would make other people think about him. He seemed shy and naïve at times, but he had a quick temper. Tommy trusted and confided in Kathy. Ruth, was the opposite of Tommy. She held court telling imaginative stories, and others liked to hear and participate in her games. Miss Lucy, Miss Geraldine, and Miss Emily were Guardians. Madame collected their art work and took it with her outside to what they called her gallery. The children believed that their work that was hanging in the gallery would influence their futures. The guardians all came from outside. They were part of the group the children referred to as normals.
It takes almost half the book to actually discover for sure what many have surely suspected. The children at Hailsham and other facilities had all been modeled after so-called normals. Sometimes, when they traveled outside of their community, they thought they spotted possibles; possibles were the humans they were modeled after. Kathy and her friends were actually clones, clones that were created and raised for the purpose of saving the lives of normals. Most of the donors survived their first donations and they were cared for by their own kind, people like Kathy, an expert carer. Some donors survive longer than others, perhaps even until their fourth donation, but generally, they simply were called upon to donate until they had nothing left to give, and then they were completed. They understood why they had been created and what duty they had to perform. They fulfilled their obligations.
I loved the narrator’s speaking voice and careful pronunciation. She did not overtake and become the story, as is often the case with a narrator. Rosalyn Landor merely told the story with appropriate voices, feeling and emphasis. The author’s prose was sharp and descriptive, and I was fully engaged, but the character development and plot direction could have been broader to make the point of the book clearer, a little earlier. It took me too long to figure out who was who and what was what. I had to go on to the internet to look for brief descriptions of the book in order to discover what kind of a world the author was describing, because although my curiosity was piqued by the telling, my confusion was all the greater because of the innuendos, and I needed sorting out.
I´m not sure why I like this book as much as I do. The story is a bleak and depressing one and yet I still enjoyed it.
Set in a dystopian world similar to ours Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are being raised for a single purpose at Hailsham, a school for special children, whose destinies are predetermined for them. Told by the adult Kathy we are following the lives of these three characters, how they are growing into adults, how they are experiencing love and how they cope with their inevitable future.
It´s especially the last bit that broke my heart while reading this book. The way these characters embrace their future makes me sad, because it all seems so futile seen from their perspective, not having lived their life to the fullest and wasting away their time with pettiness.
"Never Let Me Go" is a short read and beautifully written. But be prepared for a sad story and there may be some (possible) crying in front of you, especially if you weep easily.