Book #31: Never Let Me Go
First off, I’ll say that this book is impossible to review without explaining one major part of the plot, a part that I’ve kept under wraps in my previous posts about Never Let Me Go.
So if you want to read the book, and you want to go in totally blind like I did, then you may want to skip this review. That said, I don’t plan on spoiling the ending or sharing any groundbreaking stuff. I will simply explain what the book is about.
So what’s Never Let Me Go about?
Oh, where to begin?
Think of a future, dystopian world where human beings are cloned. The cloned humans are raised separated from the rest of civilization, isolated.
Their sole purpose is to donate organs to humans who need them. After three or four donations, usually sometime in their late 20s, possibly early 30s if they’re lucky, they die. These clones, they are humans, just like you and me, just like the people whose DNA they were given.
The story follows three main characters–Kathy (the narrator), and her friends Tommy and Ruth–through three different periods in their lives. These particular kids are raised in a school called Hailsham–think Hogwarts for organ donors, rather than future wizards.
For years, they’re oblivious to their purpose in life, to their status as living organ donors. These kids aren’t rejected by society because they are so far removed from society that they aren’t a part of it.
As they grow up, they move out of Hailsham to “the cottages”–a place that will prepare and train them to become donors. Some of the kids, now teens, become donors right away, other more fortunate teens become “carers” who take care of different donors for a few years before they, too, become donors.
With that brief summary of the story, maybe this quote from last week’s post will make a little more sense:
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. But I’m not. If you’re going to have decent lives, then you’ve got to know and know properly. None of you will go to America, none of you will be film stars. And none of you will be working in supermarkets as I heard some of you planning the other day. Your lives are set out for you.
The story is subtle. And that’s the beauty of it. That’s what so amazing about Ishiguro’s writing.
This book is a master’s course in the old writing cliche: “Show, don’t tell.” Even when Ishiguro “shows,” he shows subtlely. Even after reading, I have so many questions. It’s like watching an episode of Lost in that regard.
How were these kids born? What organs did they donate? What happens to certain characters?
After reading, I have questions like that. Maybe you’ll interpret the answers to those questions differently than me, or maybe there are no real answers.
This is one of those novels that should absolutely be read in book clubs because it has the opportunity to provide so much discussion. Never Let Me Go asks so many ethical questions.
For instance, to what lengths should society go to cure disease and extend life? Is it okay to breed an entire group of people for the sole purpose of farming their organs and curing cancer? Is there a greater good here?
Absolutely not, if you ask me. But could society move down this slippery slope in the not-too-distant future? One of the “guardians”–Miss Emily–explains this predicament to Kathy and Tommy:
For a long time, people preferred to believe these organs appeared from nowhere, or at most that they grew in a kind of vacuum. Yes, there were arguments. But by the time people became concerned about…about students, by the time they came to consider just how you were reared, whether you should have been brought into existence at all, well by then it was too late. There was no way to reverse the process. How can you ask a world that has come to regard cancer as curable, how can you ask such a world to put away that cure, to go back to the dark days?
Such a dark thought, isn’t it?
Ultimately, Never Let Me Go is just a sad story. Underlying the naivete and innocence of these kids is the dark truth that their lives, no matter how you cut it, really mean nothing. They have no purpose other than to donate organs and die.
As mentioned in the first excerpt, they have no future. In total isolation from the world, their highest dreams include the most mundane aspects of a non-donor’s life.
On one excursion to the outside world, Ruth sees a billboard that advertises some type of office job–happy people, smiling, in an office setting. And that’s Ruth’s dream–to work in a nondescript office, do paperwork, sit behind a desk.
To her, that office job is Disney World. But, sadly, that mundane office job is as inaccessible to her as a theme park is to a small, starving child in a third-world country.
Never Let Me Go is intense, but it’s a subtle intensity, one that sits right below the surface of the book’s storyline. In a lot of ways, the book reminds me of 1984.
It’s a portrait of how things could be, a future where the line between ethics and the “greater good” is blurred. Individuality means little to nothing. People are literally brought into the world for their “spare parts,” like an old car at a junkyard.
I finished this novel two days ago, but it’s still sitting with me. I couldn’t have been more wrong about my first impressions of the novel–mainly based on what seems to be a cheesy title. Sure, the title does refer to a song lyric in the book, but there’s also much more to it than that.
Never Let Me Go is just a heavy novel–haunting, sad, brutally truthful. Take it from me: This is an incredible story that will leave you in thought for days after you read the final word. Well done, Kazuo Ishiguro.
The Opening Line: “My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years.”
The Meaning: As I’ve mentioned, the title comes from a song mentioned in the book. But “never let me go” also has much more meaning…these kids are literally giving away parts of themselves to others. I think there’s some symbolism in there somewhere, yes?
Highlights: This is fiction at its best. People who say you can’t learn from fiction are idiots, and this book is a great example why. More than the story, more than Ishiguro’s melancholy style of writing, this story poses so many questions of ethics, what’s right and wrong, unlike few books I’ve read.
Lowlights: Still don’t like the title. I understand the use of the title, but I don’t like it.
Memorable Line: “I keep thinking about this river somewhere, with the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it’s just too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, drift apart. That’s how it is with us. It’s a shame, Kath, because we’ve loved each other all our lives. But in the end, we can’t stay together forever.” - Tommy
Final Thoughts: You should read this book. As the most recently published of all 100 books on the Time list, this one definitely deals with modern issues of science and ethics. Go get you a copy of this novel. If you don’t like it, then I’ll take the blame.