Book review: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I want to begin this review with two disclaimers and a side comment before getting into the book itself. The first is a warning that this review will contain spoilers. I don’t think it’s so much of a big deal because some of what I want to talk about is so garishly signposted early on in the book that within the first few chapters, I set the book down and gave predictions of what was to come to my husband. Nothing I said was wrong, and there were absolutely no surprises or twists to this tale. But if you want to read this without knowing what it’s all about, I’d suggest you look elsewhere for impressions because to explain my feelings, I need to dig into the spoilery guts of this book.

The second disclaimer is that even if I talk about the story and its characters in a negative way, I really did enjoy the story. I’ve spent several nights staying up reading under the spell of “just one more chapter” until fatigue was making the letters go crawling over the pages in a distracting manner. But this isn’t a happy story, nor are the characters entirely likeable. The setting is dark, and the conclusion is grim. That doesn’t make it a bad story, unless you just need all your fiction to be cheerful with happily ever afters. I don’t, but I realize I need to say right at the start, no matter what else I say, this is a good book.

And finally, here’s my aside: my first Ishiguro book was The Buried Giant, and I read that because it was supposedly a huge departure from his previous works. Having now read a second story from him, I’m not feeling that complaint. So one is fantasy, and the other is sci-fi. Both are speculative fiction, and both end somewhat grimly. I’d say they both have his signature writing style, even if they take place in vastly different time periods. So if you liked Never Let Me Go, but hated The Buried Giant because it had a dragon in it, I’d say the fault is more with your very narrowly defined comfort zone and not with the writing of an extremely talented author.

With those thoughts out of the way, I can begin my proper review. Never Let Me Go is narrated by Kathy, who within the first few pages makes it clear that she’s working as a carer for people whose organs are “donated” for transplants. It didn’t take long for me to gather that Kathy’s memories of the Hailsham boarding school speak of clones kept away from other people, and almost immediately, this led me to wonder, “How could people afford this level of upbringing for what are in essence portable body parts bags?” There is an answer to that question much later on, and to me it’s grimly realistic.

But before we get to that point the story is primarily about Kathy’s relationship with two people, Ruth and Tommy. Ruth has the bulk of the story focused on her, and this is because she’s a narcissistic sociopath. Kathy, her perpetual victim, is always ready to make excuses for her behavior, but Ruth has no compunctions about lying to make herself seem more special than her fellow classmates. She invents conspiracies and secrets to make herself seem more interesting, and when Kathy grows wise to these and confronts Ruth, she instantly becomes hostile and cuts Kathy down in front of their peers. It’s classically abusive behavior, and yet even after Ruth has repeatedly attacked Kathy, Kathy just keeps forgiving her and returning for more abuse. I think this is mainly because Kathy feels like there is no one else for her in this isolated school environment.

As the three characters age, Ruth takes on Tommy as a romantic partner, and she casts him off easily when he gets tired of her games. However, as soon as another classmate suggests that Kathy is the proper successor for Tommy’s affections, Ruth asks Kathy to make Tommy come back to her instead. Even later still, when she knows their relationship is a sham, she still has to twist a metaphorical blade to make sure Tommy and Kathy are never a couple. There is literally no point in the tale when she doesn’t come across as petty and self-centered.

While this final twist of the emotional blade is enough to send Kathy away for a time, she still ends up volunteering to be a carer for Ruth as she enters service to have her organs harvested. Kathy confesses her misdeeds and suggests that Tommy and Kathy might have a shot at something deeper, something she could never have with him. But by this point it’s far too late, and all of Kathy’s delusional schemes instead bring heartache and misery instead of closure. It’s a short life these clones live, and the time that should have been Tommy and Kathy’s to really live, Ruth jealously stole to keep herself the center of attention. But of course they both forgive her, having been her victims for so long that they are incapable of understanding the abuse they suffered.

The end of the book diverts into a tangent that answers some of the most pressing questions I had throughout the book. Hailsham was unique in many ways, and even though the guardians of the boarding home fought tirelessly to gain some sense of recognition for the clones’ humanity, the world at large chose to revert back to seeing them as disposable and less than human. This fleeting, “idyllic” life that Kathy and her classmates led is nothing at all like the previous and future generations of clones will have, and the deplorable conditions that clones are raised in are only hinted at as being much, much worse. As I said at the start, I find this view to be grimly realistic, knowing how in our own time many people are willing to dehumanize others to justify their actions. So I can easily imagine what it would be like to be considered only a tool to lengthen someone else’s life, an inconvenient truth that people ignore because their own greedy needs come before any moral or ethical considerations.

So the ending leaves me feeling somewhat disquieted and upset even though I know it couldn’t have gone any other way. Indeed, the book ends exactly as I predicted it would. These clones are so helplessly entrenched in their circumstances that they never even consider running away or fighting the human machine that waits to carve them up. It’s simply what they were made for, and they go to their fates with quiet desperation and little else.

It’s a lot to take in and absorb, and it’s deeply troubling in a way that I doubt will leave me any time soon. That’s why I’m giving Never Let Me Go 5 stars, and I’d recommend it to sci-fi fans looking for something exploring the darker side of our technological advances in medicine.