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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?

That's Kazuo Ishiguro (Photo: Mariusz Kubik/Wikimedia)

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.

Other Stuff

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.

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49 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great review, I absolutely love this book, one of the very few that has ever made me cry, its subtley and sheer intelligence have lead me to recommend it to anyone who will listen. I think you really get across its strong points, whilst maintaining the sense of mystery. Although I have to disagree about the title. I thought it was a bit trashy, but as I caught up with it in the novel, I think it’s brilliant that he chose it, and it really gets straight to the heart of the novel’s message. Thanks for a great review!

    Like

    November 22, 2011
  2. love this book.. i read it without knowing its plot or genre.. got me a bit emotional too.. but let’s face it there are those who qualify humanity to fit their own prejudices.. sad sad

    i have a book reflection on it over at my site Vixen Reads: Never Let Me Go

    Like

    November 22, 2011
  3. homec #

    I was so caught up in the story I didn’t even consider questions about how they were born,etc. Now you have given me even more to ponder! You were so right about needing a book club to discuss this with.
    I loved the juxtaposition of the dark theme and the innocence of the characters. I knew the basic concept of the story, which made it almost more intense. I had this feeling in the pit of my stomach about when they would find out or rather, put the pieces together. Even when they did, there was a certain level of denial or naivete’ that was utterly heartbreaking. This was a story that truly unfolds with wonderful storytelling. It is not often that a book, fiction or otherwise, raises so many questions without directly asking them. it is definitely one that sticks with you.

    Like

    November 22, 2011
  4. Rachel (BookMeadow) #

    Great review! I decided to read and review this book after reading your first post about it. Definitely one the best books I’ve read in a while! I have to say, I disagree with your comment that “their lives, no matter how you cut it, really mean nothing.” One of the messages I took from Never Let Me Go is that external constraints and time limits do not detract from the value of a life. I love the scene when Kathy and Tommy are going to look for the lost tape in Norfolk. Thinking about it, Kathy remembers how she was so happy to have that single hour ahead of them, with nothing else to do. That moment, or hour, is meaningful, no matter what happens later.

    Like

    November 22, 2011
    • Point taken. I can agree with that. I think from society’s perspective, they don’t matter. But they have found meaning in their lives despite that.

      Like

      November 22, 2011
  5. Kim #

    I agree with Helen; you review is great, yet still leaves room for people who haven’t read it to experience it. I’ve read several of Ishiguro’s other novels, and they are all simply beautifully pieces of fiction, but the haunting quality of Never Let Me Go makes this one stand apart. I imagine that’s why Time chose it for the list.

    (That said, definitely add Remains of the Day to your list of books to read when you’re done with the Time list.)

    Like

    November 22, 2011
    • One day, many years from now, I’ll get around to it!

      Like

      November 22, 2011
  6. Erik #

    I’ve not read the book, but loved the movie, Remains of the Day, for much of the reasons you mention in this review. I was waiting on your review before picking up a novel by this author. Meanwhile, I wanted to clarify your comment here:
    “This book is a master’s course in the old writing cliche: “Show, don’t tell.” Even when Ishiguro “shows,” he shows subtlely.”
    What do you mean?

    Like

    November 22, 2011
    • Everything that Robert talked about in his review is shown to you in the book, but it’s never blatantly explained. Because he’s writing the story from a viewpoint of one of the donors, the narrator never stops to think about how strange her situation seems to us reading from the outside.

      You get very small hints from time to time throughout the course of the story, and as you read through you’re very slowly able to piece together what is going on in the world. It really is extremely difficult to explain without spoiling the book. The book is brilliantly written though, I’d highly suggest it.

      Like

      November 22, 2011
    • Adam pretty much explains it. The whole idea is, as a writer, show how Joe went to the store. Don’t just say “Joe went to the store.” Ishiguro takes that to another level, as Adam explains above.

      Like

      November 22, 2011
    • homec #

      It is hard to explain, but show not tell is a good assesment. Adam is right, it makes more sense having read it. The story unfolds, a little at a time. Things are not explained, you get a little information at a time, and some of it is rumor. One thing that always irritates me about books and movies is when they have a random character come at the end and explain the whole thing. There was some of that here but it still left many things unexplained, even then.

      Like

      November 22, 2011
  7. Ah crud, now because of your review I’ve got to add another book to my rapidly growing list of “books to read next”. I really did not think I would have any interest in this book whatsoever. Awesome review.

    Like

    November 22, 2011
  8. I bought this book after reading your first couple of posts on it. Haven’t started yet as I’m finishing my current read. It feels wrong to say I’m really looking forward to it considering the subject matter, but I can’t wait to read this book for myself. Thanks!

    Like

    November 22, 2011
  9. You really nailed the book with your review. The “show don’t tell” technique in the first few chapters created a visual image in my head of weaving – as in weaving memories (with warp and weft) into a tale. Extraordinary book! How did he do that?

    I too came away with a ton of questions about the cloning program, but I was okay not knowing the answers. The story was enough.

    Like

    November 22, 2011
    • Yes, they hinted to the fact that they came from alcoholics, druggies, etc, but never said exactly HOW they came from them. Very interesting. It needs a sequel! Maybe not.

      Like

      November 22, 2011
  10. Siuon #

    When I first read the synopsis of the book, I thought it was similar to the movie The Island. And, of course, the holly-wood blockbuster is no comparison with this book in any aspects. Kazuo Ishiguro is one of my favorite English writers and I like him better than Ian McEwan.

    Looking forward to your review of Atonement, a novel by Ian McEwan.

    Like

    November 22, 2011
    • Yep, looking forward to Atonement too. Not sure when I’ll get to it but it’s on the radar.

      Like

      November 22, 2011
      • I recently read Atonement and it left me with a similar haunting mood. The two books couldn’t be more different though.

        I am very curious about how you”ll find Atonement, the first half of the book is very Mrs. Dallowayesque 🙂

        Like

        November 22, 2011
  11. You bring about some good points about the cloning aspects. I confess I never really thought too much about that at all.

    What really haunted me was how none of them ever thought to rebel against their fate. These children were told it is is their destiny and for the most part meekly accepted it. Not one ever thought of running away or fighting against this injustice.

    It made me wonder how children’s minds can be conditioned so easily.

    Like

    November 22, 2011
  12. To be completely inarticulate: wow. Also: I love dystopia!

    Like

    November 23, 2011
  13. pamelascott30 #

    I saw the movie a couple of months ago and wept buckets over it. I had no idea it was a novel. Must read it now. I find your blog really interesting. I might read the books on the list one day but I’ll find it really hard forcing myself to finish reading something I’m not enjoying. I never stick with a book if I’m not totally engrossed after a couple of chapters.

    Like

    November 23, 2011
  14. Definitely going to add this to my “To Read” list.

    Like

    November 29, 2011
  15. Finally read this on the strength of your review – then suggested it to my 12 y o and found out she’d already read it, but I think she had rather missed the horror point of life being “completed”. I am sure the older you get, the more a dystopia becomes a horrifying thought. Did you do an entry which grouped together these kind of big theme books? I ask because I read the Handmaid’s Tale (margaret attwood) first, so with Never Let Me Go I couldn’t get over the sense of having been there before. But I guess Dolly the sheep and other scientific developments in the 1990s influenced our best writers. Nicola
    http://homemadekids.wordpress.com

    Like

    December 12, 2011
    • Haven’t thought about a post on that topic, but it’s a good one. Will have to consider it for the future. Thanks!

      Like

      December 12, 2011
  16. Your review of “Never let me Go is nearly perfect.” I also agree that the title is a bit strange and it is the reason I had no idea what to expect when I picked up the book. I am currently reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s other novel, “Remains of the Day.” Have you had a chance to read it?

    Like

    April 14, 2012
  17. I enjoyed this review very much. You pretty well summed up my feelings about this book. I read it in my book group and, as you suggest, it proved to be one of the most successful books my group has ever read in terms of prompting discussion. I am pleased to have found your blog and will follow it with interest. I am also an English graduate and am presently studying for a masters degree in Victorian literature. With a heavy nineteenth century reading list, I find it important to make myself read something non-Victorian every now and then, for some healthy perspective! I may also use your reviews to help me nominate new reads for my book club. They are not impressed with me when I suggest Dickens! Thanks again for a well-written and enjoyable blog.

    Like

    April 15, 2012
  18. Charlie V #

    Thank you for correctly identifying the “guardians”…
    -c

    Like

    July 26, 2012
  19. Ariel Price #

    I’m so glad you liked this one! You’re absolutely right—Ishiguro is the master of subtlety, and of characters who must derive meaning from the lives they are given. I highly suggest reading The Remains of the Day as well. In my very humble opinion, it is better than Never Let Me Go.

    Like

    June 19, 2013
  20. I loved this book! I was in jail when I read it and it made me, oh-so-briefly, forget that I was there.

    Like

    August 22, 2013
  21. lux380 #

    I haven’t really read the book…but have seen the movie. However, the movie is too unclear, so had to look up for more understanding when I found this site. The story is very moving and is definitely intense. I have to congratulate Mr Ishiguro for having come up with such imagination. It is from a another world altogether. It is the most stunning story I have ever heard…now I will have to read the book too!!!

    Like

    February 19, 2014
  22. Stephanie #

    When I bought this a friend of mine said studied this in school and I can see why, it is such a good book you can discuss with others.
    This might be something that others can’t share, but that large quote by Miss Emily in my mind reflected the use and treatment of animals in today’s society.

    Like

    July 7, 2014
  23. Pamela #

    I would like to make a comment regarding to: “Think of a future, dystopian world where human beings are cloned.” That the novel was published in 2005 and Ishiguro settles it in time and place: England 1990s. So it is not thought to be read as if it were in the future. On te contrary, Ishiguro want readers to interpret the novel as a story that happened in the past and not in the future, as you imagined. He does this to make reader see the novel not from a science fiction point of view, with events we mainly think won’t ever happen, but from a realistic point of view to show controversial issues technology and scientific development can cause when related to humans and cloning, and to which extent can scientific development be ethical or not,

    Like

    December 15, 2014
  24. I just finished this book and I know it’s going to haunt me for a while. I’d seen the film a couple of years ago so I had a vague memory of the storyline, but it still didn’t prepare me for the beauty and the sheer tragedy of the Ishiguro’s writing. And out of all of it, I think it was the final page, where Kathy returns to Norfolk just for the idea of ‘getting back all the things she’s lost’ that did it for me. I didn’t cry, but I still have that sad ache in my stomach that’s even rarer. Phenomenal book, thanks for the great review.

    Like

    February 13, 2015

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