When I think of the science fiction genre, I tend to think of outer space, aliens or fantastical creatures, and futuristic rocket ships capable of transporting people hundreds of light years away to new and exciting planets. I definitely don’t think of England in the 1990s, which is the setting that Kazuo Ishiguro selected for his 2005 novel Never Let Me Go. But I guess that’s a good thing, since I would be very reluctant to sit down and read a “typical” sci-fi novel full of aliens and laser guns. With Ishiguro’s novel, however, I was quickly drawn into that parallel world where the events of the story seem very plausible indeed.
Plot summary (with possible spoilers): Never Let Me Go is narrated by a 31-year-old woman named Kathy H., who describes herself as something called a “carer”. Though she doesn’t explicitly say what that means, the reader can infer that it’s her job and that it has something to do with the medical profession. Kathy frequently has to go on long drives from medical center to medical center, and that gives her ample time to reflect on her childhood and two close friends named Ruth and Tommy.
Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy all attended a special boarding school called Hailsham together. Again, though Kathy doesn’t come right out and say it, the reader gets a distinct feeling that Hailsham is not a typical school. For one thing, none of the students have parents, though they’re not referred to as orphans either. For another, frequent medical checkups are an important part of their regular routine. Other oddities include an emphasis on creative arts such as painting and drawing, the fact that the students have a small shoebox full of “collections” rather than proper belongings, and that none of them have ever traveled beyond school grounds.
The personality traits of Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy begin to emerge from these early days at Hailsham, and they continue to develop once the trio leave school to take up residence at the Cottages. It’s there that more of their future is revealed: they are being primed for organ donations that will take place soon.
Bit by bit, Kathy H. continues to reveal the true nature of the Hailsham students’ lives. They are all clones that were created specifically for the purpose of providing organ donations to “real” humans in a new cancer-free, disease-free world that people have become accustomed to. Though they try to make the most of the time they have before their donations, the clones do little to alter their fate. This resignation and acceptance of their role is clear from the beginning, and is what makes their story all the more poignant.
My Reaction: I was captivated by the language and tone of Never Let Me Go right from the beginning. I could tell that something was not quite right with the world that Kathy H. was talking about, but it took me quite a while to figure out what exactly was going on. I have a feeling the reveal was supposed to be a bit more shocking than it actually was. I had already seen the movie The Island, however, which has a similar theme, so the idea of developing clones specifically for the purpose of organ donation didn’t come off as all that original or frightening to me.
I know that one of the biggest areas of contention for readers of this novel is the way Ishiguro chose to make his protagonists almost completely passive and accepting of their fate. Typically, you’d expect to have someone rail against the system and try to rouse the others into organized protest or an all-out battle. Especially in a case like this, where the protagonists actually received an education and studied art and literature, two subjects that encourage questioning.
But I actually liked the fact that the characters merely accepted their fate. Sure, they made that feeble attempt to get a deferral from Madame, but even if that whole thing had proven to be more than a rumor, they were only looking at a reprieve of two to three years, not an entire lifetime. As it was, I thought the acceptance of the status quo was a much more realistic reaction to the situation. The clones might feel impotent rage (like Tommy) at what was happening, but in the end they really couldn’t do anything to change it anyway.
Overall, I found Never Let Me Go to be a very engrossing and compelling story. The characters were likable, the plot was interesting, and the writing was a joy to read. This was the first Kazuo Ishiguro novel that I’ve ever read, but I guarantee you it won’t be the last! I highly recommend giving Never Let Me Go a chance.