Note: When I wrote this review, I didn’t think I was giving away any spoilers, but I’ve been told since then that my summary gives away the big secret of the book. The “big secret” was something I caught from the opening pages, and didn’t realize it was meant to be secret at all. So, fair warning – while I didn’t mean to include spoilers and only summarized what I thought was obvious from the beginning, apparently I gave away major plot reveals. Sorry about that!
Seven or eight years ago, I read The Unconsoled by Ishiguro, and hated it. I think, perhaps, I was just totally unprepared for the weirdness that was in it (I still can’t make sense of it when I think back), or I was too young in my reading to honestly understand it. I decided to give Ishiguro another chance for my 2nds Challenge, and debated between The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go. I’m not sure exactly why I chose the latter, but that’s what ended up coming home from the library.
This is an alternate history book about a Britain where cloning is routinely used for organ harvest. Clones go to schools until they are in their mid-teens, where they undergo training to become carers for older clones, who are called donors (as they are donating organs one by one until they “complete” (die)). Carers work at their job until they receive notice that it’s their turn to become donors. Kathy is a veteran carer, in her job for nearly twelve years, and has enough clout to request which donors she wants to care for. She seeks out old friends from the school she grew up in, Hailsham, and examines all her memories from childhood at the sheltered, secluded, creativity-focused school.
There’s more to it than that, but I don’t want to give too much else away, and the plot is hard to describe because for the majority of the book, there is no plot. Just memories. The first 240 pages are pretty much slice-of-life, and the gloomy cloning background is fairly unimportant. It’s more of a vehicle for Kathy’s story. The pacing is slow. Extremely slow. It was like listening to a mediocre performance of Debussy’s piano sonatas (I’m more of a requiem girl). Don’t get me wrong – I like down moments – but the first 240 pages were all down moments. There was no movement, and the writing, while not bad, wasn’t beautiful enough (for me) to outweigh the monotony. I didn’t really like any of the three main characters (Kathy, her spoiled semi-best friend Ruth, and their communal boyfriend Tommy), especially not Ruth, but the experiences they had in school were very reminiscent of things I remember from my old childhood. It was very real, as if someone was telling actual memories, instead of creating fiction. The characterization, while subtle, was near perfect. Mostly I just found it boring, though. My attention would ebb, and I’d find other things to read in the meantime. On the other hand, it was the sort of book that almost has to be read slowly and in little chunks, so while I frequently got bored, I always wanted to come back to it after a short rest.
The last 50 pages were a completely different story. There was suddenly a plot! The memories were gone, and there was some (mild) action. Not as in fighting/killing/adventure action, but just movement of the characters. They talked, they acted, they did things. That was missing for the first 240 pages. The last 50 went by very quickly, and the climax with Madame, a former guardian at Hailsham, is extraordinarily touching. I found myself near tears. For these being characters I didn’t particularly like, I ended up very invested in them.
Interestingly enough, the book makes a statement about the (potential) humanity of human clones, but doesn’t necessarily say anything about cloning itself. I don’t know what Ishiguro feels about the idea of cloning in general, but he seems to say that human clones would not just be soulless half-people. They would be every bit as human as non-clones. His message also can be taken out of the cloning context and applied to almost any type of discrimination. Several characters were repulsed by the clones, and yet despite this “natural” aversion, they worked hard to help make conditions better, and to prove the clones had souls, that they were real people. It’s an interesting and powerful statement, that even if you have a prejudice, you can work hard to overcome it in order to do what’s right and help the people you’re prejudiced against.
There were things in this book that I felt were superfluous. There’s a huge preoccupation with sex that wasn’t terribly necessary, and the whole romantic triangle between the three main characters was the only character-based development that didn’t make a lot of sense because it came so late and yet claimed it had always been there. But even with its flaws, Never Let Me Go is far better than The Unconsoled in my opinion. I’m not sure I’ll read more Ishiguro, but I have much more respect for him now.
**Note: Within six months of reading this book, Never Let Me Go grew to be one of my favorite books of 2009. It was the sort of book that quietly worked its way into my brain and didn’t let go (no pun intended). I read back through this review now and am appalled by my thoughts. I think of this book completely differently now. It was beautiful and subtle and powerful. I plan to reread (and re-review) in the future, now understanding the beauty and power of the book. In other words, if you come across this review, please know that just about everything I said here changed within months of reading the book. I’ve heard this is fairly common with Never Let Me Go, actually. It’s a wonderful book and I highly recommend it.