I find this one hard to talk about without revealing too much. If you haven’t read the novel but would like to one day, you can stop here. But if you’ve watched the 2010 film adaptation or if you don’t see yourself reading it, then please be my guest.
As usual, here’s the Wikipedia first-liner: Never Let Me Go is a 2005 dystopian science fiction novel by British author Kazuo Ishiguro. It was shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize (an award Ishiguro had previously won in 1989 for The Remains of the Day), for the 2006 Arthur C. Clarke Award and for the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award. Time magazine named it the best novel of 2005 and included the novel in its “100 Best English-language novels published since 1923—the beginning of TIME”. It also received an ALA Alex Award in 2006.
(One day one of you will start complaining about my laziness. Maybe I should stop copying-and-pasting from Wikipedia?)
So, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are three friends who grow up in a school called Hailsham. The story develops around their friendship throughout childhood, teenage years and adulthood after they left the school. On the surface, the book is about the relationships between the three main characters throughout their lives.
But the novel is like a big onion; it has quite a few layers. Their carefree school days is the outer-most layer, with mischief and gossips, bullies to deal with, friends to chat all night with, people become boyfriends and girlfriends, friends fall out and make up, growing up to do, just like in any other schools. The author peels the onion gently as if he doesn’t want to break the bad news, but every layer down, it stinks your eyes, a sadness that’s as light as air, you can’t catch or point your finger on, but as omnipresent as air.
When did I realise the tragedy? It’s not spelt out until the last chapter, full-blown. But it’s there right from the beginning. The book is narrated as a memoir of Kathy on one of her long drives from hospital to hospital as a carer. She looks after ‘donors’. Because she does so well, her donors do better than others. Her donors are not ‘agitated, even before fourth donation’. It doesn’t say why anyone would donate parts of their body four times. Are they in extreme poverty? And one donor has ‘just come through his third donation’, ‘he must have known he wasn’t going to make it’ and he was ‘close to completing’. What exactly are these ‘donations’? A lot of it is like this, the story is not in what’s said, it’s in what’s not said.
Another keyword that flashes at you right from the first chapter is this school called Hailsham. Both donors and carers admire and long for the place as if it’s a paradise, a dream. Students from Hailsham are special, privileged, lucky. Then stories of life at Hailsham around Kathy, Ruth and Tommy were told one by one. It’s a nice enough school with some oddities but there’s nothing special about it. But I guess that’s OK. Until later on, you realise Hailsham WAS special compared to many other ‘schools’ of the same kind. Its students are special, privileged and lucky, again, for reasons not said. So Kathy, Ruth and Tommy go about their everyday life, with this dark unsaid thing looming in the background, pressing in, as they grow older. The truth about their life is told, bit by bit, BEFORE the age they are able to understand fully. So they are always aware of their destiny but at the same time, they are fooled into a fairy tale.
The details of growing up are extremely well-written, for example, the sensitive feelings between girls who are close friends and grave rivals by days and even hours, Ishiguro put it on paper better than I could ever articulate or even identify myself when I was young, even though he’s a 65-year-old man!
Wikipedia categorises it as science fiction. Compared to The Three-Body Problem (one of the best, wholeheartedly) and other ‘hard’ sci-fi, this really is not sci-fi at all. The sci-fi element is just a presupposition of the novel – the story happens in an alternative society where the science and ethics are different from here and now. At this point I have to mention the film did a superb job. The visual context of the film emphasises the fact that the story was set in the 60s and 70s, e.g. their clothes, the school rooms etc. Although it looks familiar and nostalgic, the shocking realisation is that this is not the 1960s we know. And that contrast mirrors the shocking realisation that these 1960s kids with cute blonde curls and gingham dresses are actually clones, who are created to be like rats and grown like crops, for the sole purpose of organ donation, in order that ‘real’ people can be cured of cancer.
But the author goes deeper than just describing this dystopian world. One of the unsaid stories is that outside the safe boundaries and cosy life of Hailsham, many ‘students’ are reared in horrific conditions. The book ends with a discussion on what it means to be human. If you’re created to die after giving all your organs away by the end of age 30, would you still go to school, enjoy books and music and carry on a normal person’s life? Where does the dignity of a human being’s life come from? Is it from being able to think and feel? Having friends, creating artwork and being in love? Who gives value to life? When a ‘person’ is made in the image of men and not of God, does this person still have the same value in this world?
In the end, Kathy stops her car and looks into an empty field under a gloomy sky, wind sweeping over her hair. Both Ruth and Tommy have ‘completed’ and it’ll soon be her turn to start donating.
‘I saw a new world coming rapidly. More scientific, efficient, yes. More cures for the old sicknesses. Very good. But a harsh, cruel world. And I saw a little girl, her eyes tightly closed, holding to her breast the old kind world, one that she knew in her heart could not remain, and she was holding it and pleading, never to let her go.’