Book review: Never Let Me Go.

Last May, on my way back from a mini-conference in Stockholm, I had a long layover in Munich. Since major airports are now essentially shopping malls with parking for commercial jets, I used a little bit of that time to wander through a pretty impressive airport book store, where I picked up a copy of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I had heard a bit about it (maybe in reviews on the radio, if memory serves), and knew that it had some connection to ethical issues around biomedical technologies that seem not to be too far off from where we are now.
Because I was taking a stab at using my layover time wisely, though, I spent the hours at the airport reading a couple of other books I had promised to review for journals. Then, once on the plane, I slept. Then, I was back home fighting the twin demons of end-of-semester grading and jet lag.
A couple days ago, while straightening up some piles of books, I found Never Let Me Go and decided I needed some "me-time" reading a novel. Less than 48 hours later, I was finishing it and wondering what would count as a decent interval to wait before rereading it.
It's a very good book. I'll try to explain why without giving away too much, since a lot of the pleasure of reading this book is the way in which the reader comes into possession of key details as the story unfolds.

Let's put on the table a few details that are revealed quite early in the book: the narrator, and her closest friends, Ruth and Tommy, are clones who are designated organ donors. As the story opens, Kathy is working as a "carer" helping donors through their post-donation recovery at various donor centres across the English countryside.
The story she tells, though, is primarily a recollection of growing up with Tommy and Ruth at Hailsham, which seems a lot like a normal British boarding school of literature, at least at first. However, all the kids there -- the "students" -- are, like Kathy and Ruth and Tommy, future donors.
This makes the dynamics at Hailsham, and especially the interactions between the students, their adult guardians, and the mysterious "Madame" who appears at regular intervals to whisk off the best of the students' artwork and poetry, decidedly strange. The sense of strangeness builds gradually, though, as Kathy lays out each piece of the narrative. As a result, there is also an overwhelming sense of how utterly normal the students' social and emotional lives are, given the circumstances within which they live.
Kathy's adult recollections put us in the center of her teenage self's navigation through challenging friendships (and possibly love). As well, they convey the challenges of trying to discern reality while being buffeted by childhood theories and the official proclamations of the adults in charge. Kathy and Tommy spend a good bit of time trying to fill in the bits of the story that the guardians leave unspoken, and the adult Kathy telling the story considers the ways information might have been conveyed to the Hailsham students with the intent to misinform.
The recollections of Hailsham make up about half of the novel. What the world beyond Hailsham has in store for the Hailsham students makes up the rest, although the picture doesn't become really clear until the last few chapters. The layering on of each new piece of information, and the way each revelation seems to change the meaning of what the reader thought she already knew, is truly impressive -- and, I'd argue, it's not altogether unlike the way we go through our own lives, hardly ever in possession of all the information that would help us make sense of ourselves, the people close to us, and the larger world through which we move.
Those with an interest in biomedical ethics will surely have a lot to debate once the details in the last few chapters are revealed. But part of what's thrilling about this book is that the central tensions are larger, and relate to many other modern concerns. Among these:

  • What's the point of school (and all those endless art projects)?
  • What's the value of "getting along"? (Is it primarily of value to the kid, or to the peers and the care-takers?)
  • Is a "good" childhood any compensation in the face of a fairly grim future?
  • Is ignorance bliss? Is information you're too young to process truly informative?
  • What makes us human?
  • What kinds of ignorance do we impose on ourselves to support a way of life to which we've become accustomed?
  • Is incremental change good enough? Is it better than nothing?
  • If you've been raised with a particular set of expectations, is there any real chance of breaking out of the life they lay out for you?
  • Can people really understand others who haven't shared their experiences?
  • Can people really care for others who haven't shared their experiences? (Is caring work dangerous?)

In short, it's a very rich novel that will keep you thinking (and aching for Kathy and her friends, and the world they live in) even after you've finished reading it.

Comments are off for this post

  • The Ridger says:

    Ishiguro is arguably one of the best writers around. His domain is memory and the way we process our reality - reliably or otherwise. Never Let Me Go is a truly haunting book.

  • Karl says:

    Some time back someone on SciBlogs asked for a list of "good" or "best" science fiction. I commented that Never Let Me Go, thought not categorized as such, really was that in the original best sense of that genre - it makes one science "leap" and examines the effect that that "leap" would have on people's lives.
    I think that you gave away far too much of the story, or maybe it's me - it took me a long time to understand what was going on in the lives of the main characters.
    I also agree with The Ridger. Another of Ishiguro's books is The Remains of the Day (a movie was made of it) which is also about memory/

  • Albion Tourgee says:

    I agree Ishiguro's a very talented writer, but I thought Never Let Me Go was quite contrived and superficial, compared to Remains of the Day, which was a really fine novel. With Never Let Me Go the characters were engaging but the book's naive politics and science undermined the plot for me -- cloning wouldn't work that way and only someone very naive would think the politics would go the way the book suggests. OK, maybe its supposed to be a fable, but if so, why the engaging personal novelistic stuff. I felt sucked in by the excellent characterization, but in an attempt to manipulate me to a viewpoint about the whole subject of cloning that I think is way off base and depends on an unrealistic view of the whole subject of cloning. Excellent writing skills can indeed be used to promote very misguided views of the world, at least, that's what Never Let Me Go left me thinking.

  • Albion, I agree that cloning might not work that way, but I worry sometimes that our sociopolitical world is already there. Most folks in the U.S. are profoundly disconnected from the beings that turn into the neatly wrapped meat in the supermarket, and from the sweatshop workers who produce the consumer crap we can't seem to get enough of. I think Never Let Me Go captures that kind of intentional disconnect frighteningly well.

  • The Ridger says:

    "Cloning wouldn't work that way." I'm not sure what you mean by that. Seriously. This wasn't like The Island, after all. For this non-biologist, the science seemed plausible. And since it was an alternate world, the politics were all based on things that hadn't happened here, so who knows. And the novel's point was the sociopolitics of the situation, after all - and the profound disconnect Janet mentions. The school is an astounding thing to contemplate, by the end of the book.

  • Bill says:

    cloning wouldn't work that way
    Huh? Work what way? Ishiguro never gave enough detail about the science to demand more than standard-issue suspension of disbelief. I'm a molecular biologist by trade, and I had no problem with the cloning.
    (I will say I suspected they were clones from very early in the book, but I don't think it was revealed until quite late. That's why I nver tried to write a review, much as I loved the book -- I couldn't figure out how to do it without a big ol' spoilerfest.)
    only someone very naive would think the politics would go the way the book suggests
    Color me "very naive" then.

  • yukon slim says:

    I like your list of modern concerns that the book deals with. From my recollection of the book, the question of what makes us human was as important, if not more so, than the ethical question of creating other humans simply to serve as organ donors. This was the conceit behind why there ever was a school like Halisham (and the art) - the children were not just livestock for organ harvesting, and should not be treated as such (as they were at other centers for clones).
    I think this issue of the 'human-ness' of the clones was handled quite artfully by Ishiguro: we are not explicitly told that the students are clones until after the first hundred pages or so (I'm guessing). This allows the reader to experience the emotions of the children without bias - it's hard to reduce the children to something less than human after you've accepted them as such for the first third of the novel. I suppose, however, that someone could say the reader has been manipulated into seeing them as human by the author - that he tricks us into accepting the conclusion that he wants us to draw.
    Besides the obvious ("Frankenstein") what are some other novels that deal with similar issues (cloning, what makes us human, etc.)? Has anyone read "Oryx and Crake"? Does that cover related territory? I think Frank Herbert dealt with the issue in "Destination: Void" in a more complicated way, lacking broad appeal, perhaps.

  • Zuska says:

    Every review I read of the book when it first came out included the information that they were clones so I hardly think Janet is making a radical choice to include the info in her book review, especially this late after its publication. E.g., from the review in the Chronicle of Higher Education May 13, 2005:
    From the opening pages, a disturbing abnormality permeates their enclosed world... The children have no families, no surnames, no possessions but castoffs -- other people's junk. Told with a cool dispassion through a mist of hints, intuitions, and guesses, Kathy's memories gradually lift the veil on a horrifying reality: These children were cloned, created solely to become organ donors.
    Thanks for this review, and for the ethical questions you extract from it for us all to consider. I do think caring work is dangerous for the caregiver at times and over the long haul. This is rarely recognized and rarely credited, especially as it's usually women who do a large percentage of the caring work. As a species we have no other choice but to do caring work for each other; as an individual, sometimes we have to withdraw now and then. Whether caring work ought to continue to be done the way it's done now is another question.

  • Janet, I'm struck by your equating food and sweatshop workers.
    The story's point comes in the description of societal justification.

  • kd says:

    Although the cloning hook is very effective, I saw the ethical questions in this novel as transcendant (as Janet pointed out above). For example, you could use this book to talk about the purpose(s) of educating girls in a society that wouldn't allow them to work or create. Is this more kind, or more cruel, than barring them from education? And are the privileged members of society who fight for that education doing it for the girls, or for their own peace of mind? Ishiguro treats both these questions very well.
    The question I wondered most was why these clones were integrated into the general society at all. Surely some sort of insular farm or ranch would have been cheaper and more efficient, not to mention more comfortable mentally for the future organ recipients. (Hmmm, burkas...)

  • Eoin says:

    "only someone very naive would think the politics would go the way the book suggests"
    Only some one very naive wouldnt. Ishguro is writing from the point of view of the victims who accept their place in society, that is true of Stevens, the Butler in Remains of the Day, too. His thought was to be the best ever Butler - but what does that really get you? he accepted the economic order he was in, we accept the one we are in, they accepted the one they were in. We all do this. it is only when the system is totally corrupt, and totally evil, that you get resistance. A well treated slave does not revolt.
    by the way, Ishiguro, who is an adult gives some hints that the system is testing people. At 16, they leave shcool ( which is a prison) and live in cottages to write Essays, which even they know are nonsensical. They are free to flee here, and presumably if they do they get caught and become doners straight away, rather than carers. There is no need to detail this, just as there is no need in a book about love on a slave plantation, run by a good master, a book which deals with the loves and lives of the slaves, - to point out what happens to the runaways.
    As for the rest of the world. We accept the world we are in too. In this society the clones need to be seen as less than human, although there is resistance to this view too. Why? Because the system for the beneficiaries depends on it. There is no cancer, no early deaths, no failure of the organs. We would accept that too. We accept animal farming and slaughter, though we dont need meat, and sweatshops too. When I say "we" I dont mean all of us ( although I do mean me - I eat meat), but not all the people in the book are unsympathetic to the clones. Thats' part of the point of the book. They are guilty about the clones, but not that guility, adn not universally guilty.
    Christians would argue that stem cells are human too; and whether one argues that a stem cell cannot be the same as a full human, Christians would answer that, from the point of view of the soul - it is. But were stem cells only available from embryos, and would they cure all our illnesses ( the jury is out), and slow down aging, then we would farm Embyro's. We would use IVF to clone them too. We would poo poo their humanity, I would too.