Never Let Me Go

by Guy

Guy reviews Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. The editor really must work on her blurbs.
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It seems any meaningful review of this book has to be fairly spoily, so let me start with a short and entirely non-spoily review, and then I'll follow with the real thing.

Non-spoily:
This book is beautifully written, immersive, sad, and thought-provoking. While at one level it can be taken as science-fiction, I found it all so convincing and engrossing that I never felt as though I were reading a sci-fi book. Unless they have a strong preference for light and cheerful fiction, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this book to anyone.

More spoily review:
At first, this book seems to belong to the tradition of boarding-school fantasies like Harry Potter, the various Enid Blyton "Malory Towers" books and so on. (Boy, did I love those Malory Towers books when I was little. They did make me wonder if Blyton was a communist, though.) The story is told from the perspective of a girl at Hailsham school who, when the story opens, appears to be a young teenager. I found Ishiguro's characterisation of his narrator completely convincing; I was shocked, really, that he'd managed to sound so exactly like a thoughtful young girl. However, it doesn't take long to discover that this school is not just any English boarding school; the children don't appear to have any life outside of the school, or indeed any parents, and there is a strange social hierarchy in which being creativeis valued above sporting achievements. The narrator breezily mentions a future containing something called donations, but it's not until one of the teachers overhears the students talking about their future careers that the full picture is revealed to the reader. These children are being brought up to be organ donors; they can't have children, and they won't be having careers or marriages or homes of their own or anything of the kind. Instead, they'll spend a certain period as carers, looking after other clones like themselves, before going on to make a series of organ donations, the fourth of which will be fatal.

I suppose the thing about the book that disturbed me so much was that I felt righteously indignant against the barbaric society that would allow human beings to be used in this immoral way, and yet, the barbaric society depicted seemed to be a very plausible and only slightly changed version of our own. What kinds of use and abuse of human beings took place in order to mine the copper which makes up the internal wiring of the computer that I write this on now, that I use without a thought, every day? If similar abuses could cure chronic illnesses, is it hard to believe that someone would find a way to justify them? The story made me feel violently disgusted with the moral apathy of the society where these things could happen but then, if you take it as an allegory of our own society's moral apathy, it creates something else, a kind of unsettled, uncomfortable feeling. Perhaps I'm just not able to judge and hate my own society in that way.

The other question that this novel raised, for me, is the importance of lies and illusions in human happiness. Hailsham is an experimental school that has been set up on the theory that it's possible to give these clones a better life than that in other institutions - it's hinted that most clones are raised in places that are like Dickensian workhouses, or worse - but this is only possible if the children are not made fully aware of the future that awaits them. Knowing that the end of school will more or less be the end of the good part of their lives would ruin the school itself, or at least, so the Headmistress believes. And so these children are raised with only a vague sense of what the future holds for them. One disgruntled teacher sees things differently, sees it as oppressively dishonest to sugar-coat their future, and so tells them the full truth of what's in store for them. The question of whether this really is to the good is one that keeps coming back in different ways, through the story, whether it is better to walk blithely toward the cliff's edge, looking at the clouds, or to be staring at the drop. I know which I'd rather, but I think most people would disagree with me. I remember an acrimonious discussion I had with an ex-girlfriend, where I said that if I had children I would never tell them to believe in Santa, because finding out the truth is far worse than any joy that might have come from believing the lie. She was convinced, though, it was better to believe and then be disappointed - she was still full of nostalgic memories for the time when she did believe in Santa. For me, the memory was tainted by the fact that it had been a lie, and I couldn't enjoy it. I suppose the question is, if life is awful enough - as it is for the poor kids in this book - is it better to put them in a bubble, away from the truth, until the last possible moment? Only if you believe that there's no happiness to be had once the truth is known, I suppose is my answer. Well, anyway, the book put the question in my mind, but it certainly doesn't try to answer the question for you, so perhaps I shouldn't either.

I won't say anything much about the characters or the story, except to say that if you're anything like me you'll get very attached to all of them along the way, you'll suffer as they suffer from both the injustices of their situation and their own very human reactions to it, and you'll be very sad when it all ends.
Themes: Books
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Comments (go to latest)
Wardog at 10:02 on 2007-11-16
I finally got round to reading this - I don't know if you'll ever see this comment but I just thought I'd put it here anyawy. I think by the time I got to it, it had been over-hyped so it wasn't *quite* as amazing as everyone seems to be claiming. But it was still a thought-provoking, haunting read. It does build up to an almost unbearable sense of apathy and futility and under-the-surface inhumanity. It's amazing that he manages to portray something as idyllic as Hailsham so creepily. It reminded me - oddly - of Faber's Under the Skin. Have you read that? It's a very different book but I think they were thematically resonant. Interesting, these dystopias of the 21st century...
Guy at 02:31 on 2007-11-26
To disagree with my assessment, even mildly, sends me into APOPLECTIC RAGE!!! NEVER CAN I FORGIVE THIS INSULT!!!!
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Ahem, uh, actually... something. I haven't read Faber's Under the Skin, but I will do so at my next good opportunity. At the moment I'm wading through Against the Day and then when I'm done with that there's another monster by Sigrid Undset (sp?) that I've said I'll read, so it may be a while... but indulding my long-forsaken appetite for books is something I'm very much looking forward to getting back into. Actually, speaking of getting back into things, I'd like to start reviewing things again... give me a few weeks and I'll probably be ready to do that, too. :)
Wardog at 13:58 on 2007-11-26
Oh, it would be wonderful if you had time to review again. *dances* Especially since my next review is likely to be Guitiar Hero III, thus taking my culture points to an all time low....
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