Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I'm going to start off by saying that I think going into this book fairly blind to what it is about is pretty key. That's what I did, and I think that went better than if I had known the premise and kept looking for it, so to speak.
What to say about this book. Honestly, in ways I was kind of disappointed. I'm still going to give other books by this author a shot, because I'm trying to expand my intake of literary fiction, but suffice to say this wasn't quite what I had expected.
This is one of those books where it's not about the destination, but about the journey. As the book progresses we slowly learn about the truth of the world that our narrator, Kathy, lives in - but it's a gradual process, and the key point is how normal it all seems. We explore Kathy's childhood and school days and friendships and learn more about the others around them, and this is all against a backdrop that was the essence of what kept me turning the page - waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak, and for the focus to shift.
The focus never does shift, though, and that is where the true impact of the book comes through. It's almost surreal in nature, because you're expecting one thing, and get another - a world in which something that most of us would find abhorrent and awful is completely normalized, so much so that it's just the backdrop that the characters move against. While they may not be completely at ease with it, it is certainly something that they have definitely accepted.
This both did and didn't work for me. It ended up being a strange sort of contrast, if I'm honest - my emotional intensity was increased, but when the characters were so matter of fact about their world and their fate, it muted my own response somewhat. The lack of action directly tied into this, of course - this isn't a book that's about a grand battle, or a fight for what's right. It's simply a depiction of a world in which things are the way they are, and we get a glimpse into people living their lives in this reality.
Here I'm going to delve a bit into a more spoilery reaction. Stop reading here if you don't want any spoilers!
Honestly, I struggled a bit with how normalized everything was, as I said before. While I get that the author is trying to show a world in which cloning is just completely accepted, I found it a bit difficult to accept that the clones themselves would have no objection or fear regarding what they were going to go through. The whole point is to highlight that they're people, and this is what's happening to them - so where is their fear, their confusion, even a hint that they might not want to donate all of their vital organs to save others? The 'tralala, here's the part where we start donating and everything's fine' attitude was just difficult to grasp, for me, in part because it didn't even seem like the author was trying to show resignation - it seemed more like we were just supposed to accept that for them, this is just how life is.
The reason this didn't work for me is because of the tenacity of the human spirit. I can remind myself that characterization is the focus until I'm blue in the face, but that doesn't take away all of my questions - where was the human drive to survive? What controls were in place to make sure that the clones actually fulfill their purpose? They seem to live rather free lives, going about their business as carers and then as donators, but what's stopping them from running away? Not only are there seemingly no physical controls, it also seems as though they're not tracked or anything like that, either. The one small effort they make it simply to try and postpone things a bit, but there's never a group effort to escape or run away, or even fight back at all. It was odd.
In essence, by making the characterization the focus, the impact is actually lessened because so many of my questions were left unanswered. Instead of the backdrop being muted, it seemed as though it had holes in it that I wanted to poke at, basically.
Despite the flaws that I've just gone into, the writing is very good, and the building of friendships and all the little squabbles and tensions that teenage relationships are so fraught with was well executed too. If I simply focus on the friendships and characterizations, and what it means to face the loss of someone, then I would rate this book probably a four. However the issues that I've mentioned above have lowered it to a three.
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