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Hello friends! I’m back today with my first book review in a while, and it’s for Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go. I didn’t really love this one, and I was hesitant to write a mostly negative review, but I think it makes for an interesting case study. So, let’s talk about it, shall we?
A quick note: I do get into some moderate spoilers in this review, but I’ll repeat what I said in my May 2021 Wrap-Up. I think this is the kind of book where spoilers may lend themselves to better expectations and a better reading experience. That said, if you want to remain completely unspoiled, you’ll want to skip the “Genre Confusion” and “Moral Dilemmas” sections.
And now, on to the review!
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Any place beyond Hailsham was like a fantasy land; we had only the haziest notions of the world outside and about what was and wasn’t possible there.
What is Never Let Me Go About?
Never Let Me Go is Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel that follows three friends during and after their time at Hailsham, a unique and secretive boarding school. Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth have never known a world outside of Hailsham, but their lives inside are pretty complete. They take classes in the arts and sciences, play sports, and even have Sales and Exchanges.
Sales are one of the only opportunities for Hailsham students to get a glimpse of the outside world. Discarded and secondhand items are brought to Hailsham for students to pick from so they can make their dormitories feel more like home. Small comforts such as cute pencil cases and portable cassette players make their restrictive lives more endurable.
The Exchanges, though, are another thing altogether. These are seasonal art shows wherein Hailsham students present their original artwork for other students to purchase using tokens. The highest honor one can receive at an Exchange is to have their work taken away from school by Madame. The students believe that Madame has a gallery full of their artwork, though they can only imagine for what purpose.
Kathy and her cohorts may not know what to think of the outside world, but they can’t help but wonder what the outside world thinks of them…
We all sensed that to probe any further — about what [Madame] did with our work, whether there really was a gallery — would get us into territory we weren’t ready for yet.
Where Never Let Me Go Misses the Mark
Never Let Me Go has a lot of fascinating ideas and a few moments of brilliant writing. Unfortunately, it fails to truly succeed at any one thing. Some books (and series) can be described with the phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Never Let Me Go is a book full of clever but disparate parts that create an incoherent whole.
The world-building wavers between inconsistent and nonexistent. The main characters are one-dimensional and difficult to invest in. The writing’s few shining moments are overshadowed by manipulative narrative choices. This creates a sense of uneven, distracted pacing, which, in turn, only serves to make the entire story feel unfocused.
Intangible, general impressions of a book, such as its pacing and broader story elements, can be challenging to quantify in a written review. Even still, the characterization, narrative style, writing choices, and themes are enough to bring this suitcase uncomfortably close to our “one free bag under fifty pounds” limit.
So, let’s unpack that.
Inconsistent Main Characters
Guiding us along this zig-zagging journey through memory is our narrator, Kathy. Given that this is her story, one can only assume that Kathy is supposed to be, you know, likable. Unfortunately, that turns out to be quite the task. She first introduces herself in a statement that assumes the reader, who knows nothing about her or her world, must be jealous of her cushy life.
My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years… I’ve developed a kind of instinct around donors. I know when to hang around and comfort them, when to leave them to themselves; when to listen to everything they have to say, and when to just shrug and tell them to snap out of it… I can understand how you might get resentful — about my bedsit, my car, above all, the way I get to pick and choose who I look after. And I’m a Hailsham student — which is enough by itself sometimes to get people’s backs up.
Kathy then spends the rest of the book alternating between a passive observer in her own story and an active participant in highly questionable behavior. One of Kathy’s best friends is Tommy, a boy she befriends at Hailsham after standing up for him against some relentless bullies. Her other best friend is Ruth, a vindictive girl whom Kathy allows to bully Tommy. Apparently, Kathy only has a backbone when it services the plot.
Ruth is not a good person. She starts dating Tommy to prevent him from getting between her and Kathy; she’s mean-spirited and she keeps secrets from her friends to hold them over their heads. Still, Ruth has one of the most intriguing plot points in the book when she tries to find her “possible.” (Put a pin in that 📌.) Ruth is not easy to like. But she’s not supposed to be. So, in a way, Ruth is probably the most successfully written character in the book. It’s just a shame she’s designed to be insufferable for most of the story.
How Retrospective Storytelling Hurts Never Let Me Go
Firstly, the detached, retrospective narrative style hurts the book because it keeps the reader at arm’s length from the story and its narrator. Kathy is, and always has been, resigned to her fate. (Put a pin in that, too 📌.) She does not invite the reader to share her experiences. She merely recounts events from her life, shrugs, and says, “do with that what you will.”
In a book that is supposed to focus on its characters, an emotionally unavailable narrator is a nearly insurmountable obstacle on the course toward emotional investment in a story.
Another way this narrative style hurts the book is that it removes any real tension between our characters. Kathy reveals that she reconnected with Ruth during her time as a carer and alludes to her experiences with Tommy when it was his turn to become a donor. So, any time the three of them appear on the brink of irreversible fallout, we know it won’t be forever. We know they’ll eventually get to patch things up in the end.
Ruth, incidentally, was only the third or fourth donor I got to choose… the instant I saw her again, at that recovery center in Dover, all our differences — while they didn’t exactly vanish — seemed not nearly as important as all the other things: like the fact that we’d grown up together at Hailsham, the fact that we knew and remembered things no one else did.
Non-chronological and non-traditional narrative styles can work. However, if not done well, this style can quickly become a gimmick — and a crutch. The author gives themselves license to randomly insert plot twist-type reveals without doing any legwork to earn those reveals earlier in the story. The book may not have actually been as clever as it tried to be in this regard. Still, manipulative storytelling isn’t less manipulative just because it’s done poorly.
Is Never Let Me Go Science-Fiction?
So, the short answer to this question is: no, this book is not science-fiction. The long answer is: kind of, but still not really. Never Let Me Go is set in an alternate present where society has perfected and implemented human cloning for the purposes of organ harvesting. Sounds interesting, right? Well, Kazuo Ishiguro doesn’t think so.
He does not explore the world that created or coexists with a society of clones bred for the express purpose of having them one day “willingly” “donate” their organs. That lack of exploration might have been acceptable if Ishiguro was consistent about it. Instead, he info-dumps a bunch of retroactive exposition in chapter twenty-two of a book that’s only twenty-three chapters long.
We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls… we did it to prove you had souls at all… Most importantly, we demonstrated to the world that if students were reared in humane, cultivated environments, it was possible for them to grow to be as sensitive and intelligent as any ordinary human being. Before that, all clones — or students, as we preferred to call you — existed only to supply medical science. In the early days, after the war, that’s largely all you were to most people. Shadowy objects in test tubes.
This exposition comes when Kathy and Tommy are trying to cash in on an opportunity to delay their organ donations (put a pin in that, too 📌), but it changes nothing. Information that should have altered the way Tommy and Kathy looked at their entire childhoods gets a shrug and a resounding “well, darn.”
What Moral Quandaries Does the Book Attempt to Address?
The short answer to that question is: none. The long answer is: well, still none, but the book does a lot of mental gymnastics to make the reader think it’s addressing something.
Remember all those pins we stuck into this review in previous sections? Time to break out the bulletin board because Kazuo Ishiguro wants to teach us a lesson.
📌 #1: The Possibles Are Endless
The first moral quandary Never Let Me Go fails to address is that of the power of indoctrination. None of the characters in the book ever question the apparent inevitability of their fates. This might be understandable and a relevant theme to explore if Ishiguro chose to keep the characters in their ideological echo chambers for the entirety of the story. But he doesn’t do that.
The first pin we stuck into this conversation was on the topic of Ruth trying to discover her “possible.” A “possible” is the person whom a clone thinks may be the source of their DNA. Ruth attempts to locate her possible after she leaves Hailsham and before her time as a carer. Stalking her doppelganger through town shows the group how much like “regular” people they are. Though none of them seem interested in why, if they are so much like “normal” humans, they can’t also live a normal life.
Hailsham was unique in many ways. However, it was not unique in allowing its students the chance to taste normalcy for a few years after “graduating.” Thus, the bubble of indoctrination bursts. If the students never got that taste of normalcy, it would be easier to buy that they never attempt to obtain liberation from their fates. But that’s not the case. The book fails to prove that indoctrination works. Instead, it demonstrates that its characters have a passing curiosity about the world around them but no interest in actively engaging with it.
📌 #2: We Live in a Society
The second predicament Never Let Me Go attempts to address is how society determines which lives are sacred. In this world, society now cares so much about the right to life that they can avoid relying on using the organs of the recently deceased to provide life-saving transplants. They do this by breeding other, different humans and killing them slowly and prematurely for this express purpose.
Once again, this might have been an interesting theme to explore if Ishiguro had been consistent about it. Instead, he has the teachers from Hailsham school conduct an experiment to prove that cloned humans do, in fact, have souls and feelings. They can, in fact, experience the joys of an actual, meaningful, human existence. But, alas, the experiment failed, and the fates of the Hailsham students remained unchanged.
There are people out there… who don’t hate you or wish you any harm, but who nevertheless shudder at the very thought of you… The first time you glimpse yourself through the eyes of a person like that, it’s a cold moment. It’s like walking past a mirror you’ve walked past every day of your life, and suddenly it shows you something else, something troubling and strange.
C’est la vie; we tried; we believe you have souls, says the book, but it’s not us you have to convince. It’s the others, that nameless, faceless society that doesn’t think you have souls. Thus, we will do nothing to help you escape your brutal fates.
That’s gonna be a yikes from me, dawg.
That’s just one idea, though. There is, potentially, another way to interpret the book’s message here.
📌 #3: Delays Have Dangerous Ends
(There’s a Shakespeare reference for all my theatre kids in the audience.) The last moral dilemma Never Let Me Go fails to address is the whole clones’ rights situation. The final pin we stuck into this conversation was on the topic of Kathy and Tommy’s attempt to delay their donations. To be clear, they are not trying to avoid their fates altogether. They simply want to wait a few years before dying a slow and painful death to save other peoples’ lives.
They track down some old Hailsham folks to find out if the whispers about deferrals are true. Unfortunately, they learn, those whispers were only rumors. Upon hearing this, they make no attempt to challenge this assertion or stand up for what they might reasonably perceive as an injustice against them. They simply shrug and say, “we tried,” before returning to business as usual.
Tommy and Kathy want to live badly enough to pursue a rumor about deferring their donations, but not enough to take their situations into their own hands and do something to avoid their inevitable fates. That could have been an excellent opportunity to analyze the power of groupthink and indoctrination, but, well… see above.
Ultimately, each of these pins boils down to the following questions: does Never Let Me Go have a bad take? That is, does the book want us to think clones are not real humans, and thus we shouldn’t pity Tommy and Kathy’s inability to defer their donations? Or, does this book want us to emotionally invest in characters who aren’t very much invested in themselves? Either way, it’s… looking rough.
Why Never Let Me Go Might Still Be for You
Whew, that was a long list of complaints, I know. If you’re still here… bless you. I’m not mad at Never Let Me Go; I’m just… disappointed. I don’t want it to seem like I thought this book was horrible, though, so I’d like to finish this review by calling out a few of the book’s redeeming qualities.
Firstly, Kazuo Ishiguro is undoubtedly a talented writer. Despite my issues with the narrative choices, there are still moments where his writing shines through. Sometimes this happens in moments with very layered character interactions. Sometimes, as in my favorite passage in the book (below), he creates a scene with breathtaking imagery.
Secondly, as I’ve been saying since my May 2021 Wrap-Up, the book isn’t really about the plot. Even if you read this entire review, spoiler sections and all, you could still really like this book if you tend to like introspective, stream-of-consciousness narratives in general. Read a few chapters and, if you find yourself connecting to Kathy, you’ll most likely enjoy this book a lot more than I did. Especially since you won’t be expecting the sci-fi elements to go anywhere.
The woods were at the top of the hill that rose behind Hailsham House. All we could see really was a dark fringe of trees, but I certainly wasn’t the only one of my age to feel their presence day and night. When it got bad, it was like they cast a shadow over the whole of Hailsham; all you had to do was turn your head or move towards a window and there they’d be, looming in the distance. Safest was in front of the main house, because you couldn’t see them from any of the windows. Even so, you never really got away from them.
Letting Go of Never Let Me Go
Wow, we made it, folks. We’ve arrived at the conclusion. If you read this whole review, I really want to thank you for sticking around and hearing me out. I hope all my “this would have been interesting, but…” statements clarified why I rated this 2.5 stars, but why you might rate it more than that.
If you decide to pick this one up — or if you already have — I’d love to know what you think about Never Let Me Go. Also, if you’ve read any other books by Kazuo Ishiguro, share your thoughts on those too. Personally, even though Never Let Me Go disappointed me, I still might pick up Remains of the Day at some point.
That’s all I’ve got for today! I’ll be back soon with another book review, so stay tuned, and I’ll see you soon!
As always, thanks for reading.
You can also read my reviews on Goodreads. Check this one out here.