Whilst on holiday
last week, I took the opportunity to catch up on some light (!) reading, as recommended to me by my mum.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro was one of those books that I always knew I’d need to read. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, nominated for the Arthur C Clarke Award, and Time’s book of the year – its science fiction, and dystopian science fiction at that! Yet for some reason, I delayed actually picking it up and getting stuck in.
Now that I’ve read it, I rather perversely understand my reservations much better. It isn’t what this book is that I find somewhat unappealing, instead it’s what it has been associated with. Less this authors interpretation of the concept, more the way in which the concept has been handled in the past.
To illustrate the point – the same year this book landed, that shocker of a film ‘The Island’ (Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson’s best assets) was released. Contrary to press reports, it was by no means a ‘new’ story, or even a ‘new take’ on the story, and everyone from Philip K Dick’s family to Michael Marshall Smith complained about plagiarism. And the product placement. And the terrible pacing. And the dialogue…I’ll stop here.
So, although I was excited about Ishiguro’s handling, I kept prioritising other books, lesser books or re-reads in many cases, but fresh in a way that cloning for profit just didn’t seem to be.
The book is split into three distinct chronological phases, all differing in geographical locations, narrated by Kathy H, a 31 year old woman, who is knowingly nearing the end of her life.
The first section outlines her early life, at – a beautiful example of one of those great staples of British fiction – Hailsham, a boarding school in an undisclosed location in England. Her early life consists of routine and education, with a heavy emphasis on creative pursuits. Escaping or attempting to escape from the school grounds results in death. There are no parents, and few outside influences of any kind.
Kathy becomes especially close to two other boarders – the manipulative, overpowering and occasionally deceptive Ruth, and Tommy, the passionate boy with a temper. All the time, they are becoming more aware of the unique circumstances and responsibilities of their lives, but in small incremental steps to lessen the blow.
As is the authors wont, this section infers the tragedy to come, without ever baldly stating it, and I found it to be all the more powerful by the air of heavy tragedy hanging over what the narrator obviously considered to be a more innocent time in her life.
The second third dissects the initial time period after Hailsham, when Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are sent to the Cottages. At this point, Ruth and Tommy have been in an on and off relationship for some time, with Kathy playing the field. The Cottages are obviously a sort of halfway house – a place for the inmates? residents? to learn to interact with the outside world, and embrace their relative freedom. The Cottages differ from Hailsham in a number of vital ways – the most obvious to me was that in these dilapidated hovels our three friends began to first see the true value that was placed on them. They are aware that they are to be donors (harvested for organs as many times as possible before they die, usually no more than 4 operations), but up until this point enjoyed a fairly comfortable existence – a feature near unique to Hailsham students. Yet they seem to have no desire to escape, or kill themselves, or try to blend with the general public *.
During this period, Ruth encounters her possible original – the source of her genetic makeup – causing some consternation for all in the group, and she drifts further away from Kathy, both lying to her, and taking care to distance her from Tommy. It is also during this phase that the three hear the rumours of putting aside their donations for a few years – purely because of their Hailsham connections – which is hugely significant as it was the first indication that they might actually wish to survive.
The final chapters cover Kathy’s years as a carer – a person who sees to the needs of donors, to allow them comfort between operations. As she has had an unusually long ‘career’ (in the only position available to her), she is allowed the freedom to choose whom to work with. Naturally, she picks Ruth – who is unlikely to survive her next operation – who manages in the shortest space of time to ignite the affection between Kathy and Tommy, and also offer an intriguing prospect for their future…
Right, to the review.
I loved loved loved this book. It is beautifully written, with descriptive passages building up an alternative world, but in a dreamlike and magical way. It is also a very grounded book, with each person behaving consistently in each section. However, there were some aspects that really left me grinding my teeth in frustration.
Tommy, in my opinion never really evolved after the first third of the book. During this, he has a new way of living revealed to him by a guardian, struggling to live with her conscience, and moved from being an angry boy into a sensitive, self aware teenager. However, he never moves on from this, and by the final section, he seems positively petulant to me. I’m not implying that he didn’t have a right to feel angry about his circumstances, but his actions felt less like a response to these and more his default view of the world.
I never really warmed to Kathy throughout the book, finding her to be less of an observer, and more a passive recipient of whatever was thrown her way. Her only goal really seemed to remain friends with her Hailsham buddies, only moving away from this when Ruth forced her to it. Her relationship with Tommy, apparently evident to all for years, was weak enough that at no point does it ever occur to her to do anything about it, to attempt anything with him outside of Ruth’s wishes. This passivity and lack of introspection didn’t actually take from my affection for the book – I don’t need to like the main character to enjoy a book, but her blandness, in my eyes did make it difficult every now and again.
Ruth, on the other hand, is a positive dynamo in comparison to the other two. She is flexible, has dreams and ambitions, and when faced with the truth of her origin, she leaves it behind, focusing instead on her future, albeit in an occasionally self-delusionary way. Sure, she lies, cheats, breaks hearts, possibly steals and lashes out at others, but heck she lived! Of the three, she’s the only one I thought could have potentially survived – she was the only one really trying to!
The final third of the book is where Kathy and Tommy learn the truth about Hailsham, their origin and their future. In Kathy’s mind, this knowledge separates Ruth from the other two, that Ruth in someway lacks, by not being fully aware. I think that Kathy has missed the point. In fact, I would almost see it as Ruth’s final revenge. She sends them to Madam, providing all the necessary information and incentive, but never felt the need to do it herself. I think that this is because she knew which of her delusions were possible, and which were not. She never made the journey because she had figured it out – she didn’t need the verbal confirmation, but she knew that Kathy and Tommy would. No, that’s not fair, she knew that Tommy needed to hear it, and preferably from a person in a position of authority (who better than the former head of the guardian’s) and that it wasn’t in Kathy’s make up to even consider such things. Her victory, in my eyes, is that she died with her hope intact, while the other two have their peace shattered.
As I said, I really enjoyed this book, and would not hesitate to recommend it. Go, read, then comment and let me know if you thought similarly, or you took something else entirely.
Just don’t blame me if you end up with thoughts about this at odd and unexpected times. You’ve been
warned it is that sort of book!
*I have to admit, this mystified me to the point of distraction. If there was a survival gene and it was removed, why not say so? I get that this isn’t hardcore SF, but there seemed to be a determined effort to avoid indicating how this parallel, similar yet so starkly different world exists. No explanation at all for any science involved in the creation of a world parallel to our own, similar in many ways, and so starkly different in others. Or, if there was, it was explained in fantastically opaque ways, and totally went over my head!
There is also a film out, and as soon as I’ve seen it, I’ll stick a note up to let you know what I think!