Never Let Me Go

I'd been holding off on reading Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go because I knew it was going to be good and I wanted to wait for the right time (hey, sometimes it's important to time books correctly when you know they're going to be depressing and yet sadly lovely). Well, the right time didn't come along so much as the movie got released and I didn't want to live in fear of something being given away and spoiling it all. So I dove in to this melancholy tale about growing up, surviving friendships, and understanding that the world is not fair... in a far more colossal sense for these characters than we could ever imagine for ourselves.

It's a hard novel to talk about without giving away something, so I feel I was right to read the book when I did (aka before the movie's wide release). As I don't want to ruin the plot for anyone who doesn't wish to know more about what we're dealing with, I'll put some greater detail and some personal thoughts on the big reveal after the asterisks. Up until then, if it all sounds a bit vague, well, then you'll understand.

The novel is told from the perspective of Kathy H., a woman aware that a new chapter of her life is about to begin but who is constantly drawn to thinking of the past... in particular, she remembers her own life in terms of her relationships with Ruth and Tommy. Ruth is Kathy's lifelong frenemy... a best friend capable of deep sympathy and just when Kathy lets down her guard, Ruth will do something cruel... for only a best friend is capable of inflicting certain kinds of cruelty. Of course, then the pattern of love and betrayal repeats itself again and again, until one day it doesn't. Tommy is the only boy that Kath seems to befriend, understanding him better than Ruth, and there's always the question of whether perhaps it should have been Tommy and Kath that should have gotten together. After growing up at Halisham, a rather idyllic-seeming English country school, and embarking upon lives outside of its sheltering walls, Kath reflects on everything that has come to pass between the three of them, from moments of deep camaraderie to times of intense turmoil and sorrow. Their world is not simple and yet perhaps its deep lessons are as simple as those in the lives of the rest of us.

Ishiguro writes of England in a way that seems to make the whole country become incredibly vivid, as though you were experiencing a chilly English fall, with a nip in the air as you walked a long distance in your Wellingtons and a pullover. More than that, the whole mood of the novel seems to reflect this... a feeling of transition tinged with sadness and decay, complete with a steady descent into inevitable and hopeless winter. Let me warn you now that if you're a person who cannot deal with melancholy reveries, then perhaps this book is not for you. It hinges upon the reader's ability to sympathize with the characters, to feel deep sadness and to make up for their lack of fight with the reader's own feelings of anger and indignation at a system that goes unquestioned.

One small issue I might have is that by the time any important information is completely revealed, the reader has long since guessed it. The novel makes expert use of ambiguous and cryptic phrasing. Hints are dropped via innocuous words that something is very wrong, indeed, and yet is known about on a grander level, so the students are left to piece together bits of knowledge to form a coherent picture. Deep undercurrents of tension are everywhere, with the sickening feeling that we're headed towards inevitable anguish. Kath and Tommy worry about being overheard, yet take the chance to meet and decipher odd things that they, themselves, have overheard. Yet just as their curiosity blooms, they either loose interest or find a reason to back away, uncertain if they're ready for the ultimate revelation. The reader, then, has figured things out by the time bald statements of fact are made and so one is left with a sense of, "Yes, and what else?" with a hope for something more... which is perhaps fitting for characters who somewhat know the truth and yet wonder if there isn't something else left unsaid for so much in their lives has been learned by drips of seemingly secret knowledge.

The title comes from a song (fictional) on a tape that Kath owns. While the song probably refers to a lover, Kath thinks of a mother holding a long-hoped for child; yet beyond this, an observer of Kath comes up with an entirely different interpretation as she watches this young girl dance alone to the music. Ishiguro seems here to emphasize the many perspectives of situations, clearly imagined in the book as a whole by telling a story from the perspective of one who is not a large player in the events of the world, and is simply one small being living out her life. The language is lovely and the plight of these three entwined creatures is quite distressing, indeed, and if you're anything like me, there will also be an unease and frustration at the lack of action. So much is accepted as fate... a sad, awful fate, but fate nonetheless that appears as though it cannot be altered. At first, I wondered how Ishiguro could write such a story without any apparent thought of changing their destinies, and yet now I feel that his goal is to inspire the reader with such emotions, to bring the discussion off the page and into the reader's own life as it never was in Kath's or Ruth's or Tommy's. Against a backdrop of larger ideas and scientific discoveries, Kathy's account of her own quiet life creates such heartbreaking poignancy that the reader will not likely forget her story or the questions it raises.

This next section includes some spoilers, so if you haven't read the book, I urge you to turn back now.

The reader spends the book gleaning bits of information dropped at strategic moments from Kathy and by the time she comes out and says the big secret of everything, the reader has long since figured it out. When the story finally states that all of the children at Halisham are clones and are destined to be harvested for their organs, the reader is left thinking, "Yes, yes, but what else?" Well, there isn't anything else. This experience of the reader is echoed in the characters themselves, who vaguely understand their fate, and yet there are small bits of hope that there might be something else left for them, a mythical "deferral." The rumor seems real, for multiple people have heard it whispered that people who prove they are in love can receive a deferral from their donations and have a few years together. No one knows whether this is true, but it doesn't stop the rumor from cropping up again and again... the manifestation of creatures who wonder if they cannot change what life has in store... that perhaps they are special and they can be an exception to the rule.

Of course, the big question asked by any reader isn't how can they defer this, it's more how the hell can they get out of it altogether? But not a single character within the book asks this question, human or clone. Not Ruth, not Kathy, not Miss Emily, not even Tommy... but at least Tommy seemed to experience anger over everything, even if he does come to accept things. With movies like The Island or other science fiction tales in my head, it seemed incredibly strange to me that there was no mention of a safe-guard or something that ensured these clones would meet their destined role on the operating table. No "Oh sorry, you are all implanted with a tracking chip, so if you tried to run off and assimilate into society, you'd be found right quick." No "You have no skills to deal with life in the real world... (except if you tried to hole up somewhere academic where your ineptitude for every day things would be fairly standard)." Not a word on the idea as to whether or not they could "pass" as normal human. Nothing about groups lobbying for the rights of clones. Only the fleeting idea, easily extinguished, about a deferral for those in love. Only pain and acceptance. It is mentioned at one time that society in a larger sense could never go back to a world without the harvesting of organs from clones, as this enabled horrible diseases to, essentially, be eradicated.

Within Never Let Me Go is a world that chooses not to look on the face of clones and insists they have no souls, so it's okay that they're raised for this fate, like cattle. Is it idealistic of me to assume that our world would not stand for such things? It's actually quite a frightening thought when you have to put faith in your own world on matters like this when other atrocities go unchecked and people die each day from preventable causes. The clones are sheltered and cared for with the utmost attention to their health. Halisham is revolutionary in its attempts to provide an idyllic life for the clones before they meet their fates, like free-range chickens with art classes. Such emphasis on creativity might be working towards proving the existence of their souls, but when their champions aren't quite sure about it, then how can the clones ever hope to have free choice in their lives? Even Miss Lucy, the outspoken teacher dismissed so quickly, was really only insistent that the children be openly told about their purpose in life... she only thought it was cruel to not be more transparent about the facts, not that the facts were abhorrent. And make no mistake, this is a kind of horror story, even if the reality is couched in vague terminology. The whole system of carers and donors, where one is forced to watch others endure what will soon be their own fate... the phrase "completed" substituted in for "died"... a process where the donor gives one organ at a time until the fourth "donation" when, clearly, all other organs are harvested. (As a side note, I spent a great deal of time musing on what the third organ could be that is taken from a donor where they can still get up and move around. A kidney, part of a liver and what? While musing aloud to my significant other on this topic and the book in general, I inadvertently stumbled into one of his childhood nightmares and was firmly requested to never discuss the idea of clones and organ donation again. So clearly, Ishiguro has at least one person who would file this novel in the "horror" section.) Even the idea of Kath becoming an excellent carer who is allowed to choose some of the donors she cares for has a strangely twisted element of kindness... indulging the fact that she has emotions and cares for people, yet still persisting in the system which will eventually run its course for her, too.

Of course, I put my emphasis on this topic because I've been thinking about this since I finished the book, which means it stuck with me, which means that it presented some really fascinating ideas. Ishiguro creates a science fiction world and yet I imagine few people would think of this as science fiction -- namely because he's not trying to focus on the alternate world realities so much as he's dealing with personal pain and acceptance, relationships that stretch throughout our lives (no matter how short), and the various ways a person deals with impossible circumstances and death... even when it's the knowledge of their own. Overall, I really enjoyed the book... perhaps even more so after reading it and taking time to reflect. For such a slim novel, it speaks volumes about what it means to be human and what matters in our very short lives. I highly recommend it and if you have any insight as to what that third organ could be (and no, it didn't seem to be eyes), let me know.

1 comment:

Marshall said...

Hello. Found your blog from Goodreads. Did you see the movie after you read "Never let me go"? I did what you did in waiting until I saw the movie was released before I read the book. Just wanted to hear someone else's thoughts on the movie.