Never Let Me Go by Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro is the type of book that will beautifully withstand the test of time. It’s a book I believe will be studied in classes for years to come, its lessons still (or perhaps even more) applicable over the years.
A once-in-a-decade speculative masterpiece, Never Let Me Go will be one of our generation’s literary heirlooms.
The book follows Kathy, a woman in her mid-thirties, reflecting on her childhood growing up in an isolated boarding school with her friends Ruth and Tommy. The language makes it clear that something in this alternate reality is wrong, but our childish main characters don’t quite understand what and only begin decrypting all the loose ends at Hailsham as they grow up. Ishiguro maintains an eerie undertone and inserts sinister moments in between an otherwise dreamlike supercut of Kathy’s childhood, as evident in this scene:
“I can still see it now, the shudder she seemed to be suppressing, the real dread that one of us would accidentally brush against her. And though we kept on walking, we all felt it; it was like we’d walked from the sun right into the chilly shade. Ruth had been right: Madame was afraid of us.”
Why were these students secluded from the rest of society, not permitted to exit school grounds? Why were teachers afraid of their own students? Later, we find out that human beings are being cloned and bred for organ harvesting as they grow older; rather than an educational institution, Hailsham was a training ground and conveyor belt for clones.
Science fiction novels–and I say this as an avid enthusiast of all things science–often get too caught up in technical world-building and action that they fail to hit close to readers’ hearts. This isn’t the case with Never Let Me Go: rather than presenting pure, upfront science fiction, Ishiguro manages to interweave several conflicting genres and make it all work together seamlessly.
What makes this book so haunting is that it’s a horrific dystopia written in the style of an innocuous coming-of-age novel. While we understand from the get-go that something is amiss, we don’t know what exactly went wrong until halfway (or so) into the book. The storyline begins with Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy growing up and navigating their newfound interests in a boarding school, slightly reminiscent of the light-hearted stories I’d read as a child. Like normal children, they argue and concoct mischievous plans and make friends; their youthfulness is a stark contrast to the acts of cruelty being committed in the very institution they reside in.
In addition to its unassuming premise, the book is narrated conversationally, which adds to its deceptively youthful feel until we realize that this is because the narrator (Kathy) is blind to how cruel her ultimate fate is. While protagonists in other dystopias (i.e., Offred in the Handmaid’s Tale) have an understanding of the horrors they are subjected to, Kathy doesn’t understand that her purpose as an organ donor is inhumane. To me, this brought a new light to her passive, reticent personality; before understanding the full picture, I found her detached and unrelatable. After this revelation, I realized that the reader isn’t supposed to relate to her. As readers, we are meant to feel alienated by her complete lack of passion–many of us don’t
understand the devastation that comes from accepting a bleak future.
Ishiguro’s portrayal of horror as mundane is incredibly masterful; there is such hopeless resignation and acceptance for our main characters that you cannot help but feel for them towards the end.
Never Let Me Go is a tough read because it’s not a far-fetched vision of our future (or reality, in fact), unlike most light-hearted and adventurous sci-fi novels. It’s austere yet so humane and warm amidst the hopelessness. It forces you to sit down and think about the things we currently accept as normal or inevitable without questioning, and whether we only accept these things because it’s all that we know. A devastatingly heart-wrenching read, this book will stick with you for days to come.