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.