OK, first of all, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t really want to know anything about a book before you read it, the kind of person who won’t watch trailers of movies in case they give too much away, then you should really skip this review. Not that I’m planning to ruin the book, I won’t give away the ending, but I can’t sensibly talk about it without talking about the central premise.
Still with me? Good.
Never Let Me Go is a kind of SciFi novel in that it’s set in a world almost exactly like ours but with one difference i.e. it’s an alternative present. Still I say only “kind of SciFi” because although good SciFi is always more interested in ideas than shiny tech, this really isn’t interested in tech at all except in how it changes society. In that way it reminds me of something like Children of Men.
Kathy and her friends Tommy and Ruth grew up in a boarding school called Hailsham. There they are prepared for the life that is ahead of them and we soon see that this is not quite the kind of life one might expect. Nevertheless they have a close relationship and the early part of the book is about their experiences together, their loves and aspirations and conflicts within the relatively small world of the school. There’s an intensity here that may relate to their role in the world or may just be a consequence of that enclosed environment.
We follow them as they grow into adulthood, learning some measure of independence but always with an eye towards a particular future. You see these are human clones who have been bred for the specific purpose of providing organ donations. They live relatively normal but short lives, “completing” once they have made 2,3 or at most 4 donations. Some of them, Kathy in this story, work as “carers” to the “donors” supporting them through the medical procedures. But even the carers eventually become donors themselves.
This is a thoughtful intense book. I enjoyed it for the most part. One annoying habit the author has is in the early part of the book he tells various incidents out of order. Nothing wrong with that per se but the way he does it appears to have no real reason. He’ll be telling you about an incident between two characters and at the end he’ll say something like “…but maybe that’s because of what had happened with the tape.” Then he’ll go back and tell the story of the tape ending it with “…which is perhaps why she fell out so strongly with Tommy.” Then he’ll skip forward and tell you about the argument with Tommy. He’ll do this several times in a row and it left my head slightly spinning and I couldn’t think of a good reason why he couldn’t just describe events in the order they occurred.
The other reservation I have is about why the characters don’t try harder to escape their fate – to run away or rebel. I know the answer but it’s not one given in the story itself. Remember I said this was a kind of SciFi? One of the things that SciFi often prompts people to do is ask “why?” questions – “Why don’t they just use the transporter to beam out of there?”. Often there’s a reasonable answer that the author has alluded to but not gone into detail on because he doesn’t want to distract from the story itself. I’ve been a defender of this kind of story-telling. It’s about suspension of disbelief. You accept certain things to allow the story to be what it is.
Well anyway, this is similar to that but the answer to the “why?” question is “because this is a metaphor” and for the metaphor to work the donors need to be accepting of their future. Why don’t I let Ishiguro himself, talking when the film of the book was released, explain:
So as a meditation on the meaning of life, its brevity and inevitable end, the book does have some interesting things to say. I confess to being just picky enough to be bothered by the “why?” question. I can extrapolate from hints in the text that it’s because they’ve been socialised their whole lives to be compliant, but still…
7/10 – A thoughtful, challenging book.