Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is a weird little book. Trying to tell you about it without giving it all away is the challenge I’m facing, but I’m going to give it a shot because it’s better not to know too much about it before you read it. And I want you to read it.
Set in England in the late 1990s, it’s narrated by Kathy H., who we learn right away is a “carer”, taking care of donors. She doesn’t explain this thoroughly so we’re left with a vague idea of what she means, an ominous feeling that doesn’t ever go away while reading the book. When we meet Kath, she’s in her early 30s and has been doing her job for 11 years, but is nearing the end of her career. Much of the story is Kath’s memories of her days at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school, and her friendships with Ruth and Tommy.
At Hailsham there are cliques, like at any school. There is teasing and bullying. Rumors are flying and there is pressure to conform. Yet this is a prestigious place, and the students here are special. They are parentless but they have “guardians” who treat them with great care, making sure they are healthy and educated, but not having any sort of close personal relationship with them. Students know they are not like their guardians or like people outside of Hailsham. Much importance is put on creating artwork, hoping to have it selected for ‘the gallery’. One guardian in particular gets frustrated with the students’ banter about their futures, and angrily asks them to stop with their chatter, setting them straight about who and what they are, spelling it out for them that the course of their lives has been pre-determined. It’s a revelation for the reader, but the students already ‘know, but don’t know’, and their reaction to this outburst is subdued.
The students grow up and leave Hailsham for The Cottages, where they go on to more training and learn from more experienced students. It’s a bit like going on to college. They develop adult relationships and have some freedom before moving along to their intended ‘careers’. Tommy and Ruth become a serious couple at the cottages, although Tommy has always had feelings for Kath, and this triangle persists into adulthood.
Reading Never Let Me Go is like peeling an onion; it is parceled out to the reader layer by layer, each chapter foreshadowing the next. The writing is quietly powerful and deceptively simple. It is futuristic and literary, infused with a sense of deep sadness and futility. It is about hope, and people, and society, and it makes you think about what it means to be human. Does love make us human? Is it our bodies? Our minds? Our creativity or curiousity?
Have you read this book? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts. My book club will be discussing it next month and I can’t wait to see what everyone thought of it.