Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Brave New Reading List: Never Let Me Go

by Brita Thielen
Never Let Me Go cover

You might have heard the controversy surrounding novelist Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest book, The Buried Giant. People seem confused about what it is supposed to be – fantasy, allegory, literary, or all three – and while many reviewers praise and seem to respect the book, few claim to love it. I mention The Buried Giant only to say that if you have never read Ishiguro’s work and have been turned off by these reviews, you should really pick up a copy of his last published novel, Never Let Me Go (2005; Vintage Books).

[WARNING: This post contains a SPOILER regarding the central plot point of the novel (sorry, but I can’t think of a way to talk about the book without mentioning it). Continue reading at your own risk.]

Never Let Me Go is set in England in what may be the near future, though it could just as easily be the recent past. The time-period is never explicitly stated, but daily life appears fairly normal on the surface – so much so, in fact that it was difficult for me to pinpoint what exactly distinguished the society of the novel from real life. Never Let Me Go is narrated by a young woman named Kathy H. who serves as a “carer” to “donors” – though it takes a good while for these terms to be fully explained. Instead, we follow Kathy’s reflections about her childhood at Hailsham, a sort of year-round boarding school operated by “guardians” that emphasizes teaching the Humanities – especially art. Kathy and her close friends Ruth and Tommy spend their time at Hailsham navigating the seemingly normal process of growing up.

But Kathy, Ruth, Tommy, and the rest of the Hailsham students aren’t exactly “normal” children. They are clones. Clones who have been created for one purpose: to donate their vital organs to the “normal” members of society. This process usually begins in young adulthood – maybe around 20. These donors hope to make four donations, if they can survive that long, and “complete” (aka die) after the fourth. Before becoming a donor, many of these cloned young adults serve as carers to the current donors until they receive their notices. As Kathy mentions early on in the novel, she has been a carer far longer than is usual – nearly 12 years – and has been the carer of both Ruth and Tommy.

Upon seeing the term “guardian” in a dystopian novel, you might imagine that these characters are sinister and oppressive forces to the children at Hailsham. However, that’s not the case; the guardians seem to genuinely care for the children, despite feeling varying degrees of discomfort over their status as clones. One in particular, Miss Lucy, feels the children are not being prepared enough for their future, since the school never explicitly tells them who they are and why they were created. As Kathy puts it, the children “were told and not told,” so when Miss Lucy openly reveals the situation, no one, including the reader, is very shocked. Like Kathy, we’ve been told and not told.

As the novel progresses, we become absorbed in the fluctuating alliances and intimacies between the characters, particularly Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy. Their inevitable departure from Hailsham tests these bonds in ways that Kathy, at least, never expected. And this, I think, is the core of the novel: these very human relationships formed by people whom the greater society does not believe – or at least does not want to admit – are human. Never Let Me Go is not a flashy, dramatic world of chase scenes and explosions. In fact, Kathy never once imagines that she will completely escape her “purpose,” much less tries to change her society. She relates her past, present, and future calmly and pragmatically, but her resignation makes her situation all the more heartbreaking. This feeling came upon me slowly but settled deep, like a bone-chilling cold and just as hard to shake.

Fortunately, I think the best books are slow to leave you.

Recommended if: You are interested in the ethics of initiatives like human cloning and/or enjoyed the bio-engineering aspects of Oryx and Crake or Brave New World. The meditative prose also reminded me of The Handmaid’s Tale. Finally, this is very much a character-driven novel, so if you’re a plot-focused person you might find the novel slow at times.