Winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature – when they’re not a complete misfire (no names need be mentioned – the answer is blowing in the wind…) – tend to be too high-brow for my vulgar tastes. Never Let Me Go seemed a good choice, though, if you wanted to read something Nobel Prize-worthy which was neither too long, too involved or too earth-shatteringly depressing, and so I decided to give it a go. Granted, it’s not exactly a cheerful tale, but the premise isn’t as off-putting as, say, that of Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child (which I’m never going near as long as I live). I found on starting to read it, too, that the prose style was very clear and easy to follow – thankfully, no thorniness, long sentences or inexplicable wordplay. However, this is not the only reason I liked the novel, though I’m always grateful to authors who don’t set out to make the readers feel like idiots.
To be honest, I had my doubts about the novel’s premise. When I first read the carefully worded reviews of Never Let Me Go, which implied that there was some sort of twist which the reviewers felt duty bound not to reveal, I thought: “Come on. It’s as clear as day. The characters in this novel are reared to be organ donors. That’s not even an original concept: isn’t it a staple of sci-fi dystopias?” That Never Let Me Go was not a sci-fi novel (though it does depict an alternative reality) did not, in my eyes, make the conceit automatically cleverer, nor did the fact that the protagonists are raised in surroundings that recall the idyllic picture of public school life you often find in classic children’s and young adult fiction. It looked like a forced contrast to me – “oh, look, poor innocent children growing up in a fool’s paradise, not knowing what horrible fate awaits them”.
Never Let Me Go did not turn out to be as crude as that. In fact, crude and polemic are the last things this novel is. It’s a book where the author has really thought through his idea and the different aspects of it, and before long I became gently fascinated by the ins and outs of the setup. So, the pupils of the Hailsham school are marked out to have their organs harvested in later life – after a spell as carers for other donors, they will keep giving donations until they “complete”, that is die. That much is clear pretty early on. But where did they come from? Why are they encouraged to be “creative”, and why is so much effort put into their education seeing as they don’t have much of a future? As one key player formulates it at the end of the novel, “Why Hailsham at all?”. At one level, the novel reads like a literary thriller where you try to pick up the clues to what goes on in this world. The everyday life of the Hailsham pupils, during and after their time at the school, is rendered with believable detail. They’re not living in some vague thought experiment; their reality seems very real. Also, we sense the very human unease the outside world experiences in connection with them and others in their situation. In the sci-fi scenarios mentioned above, victims of forced organ donations and the like are treated with determined callousness, because it’s a dystopia where pretty much everyone is supposed to be horrible. In Never Let Me Go, people have a conscience, and this has an effect – sometimes good, sometimes bad – on how the donor question is handled.
Another point in the novel’s favour is that it’s narrated by its most likeable progatonist, Kathy H., a girl who may seem naïve but who is in fact very observant. Her closest friends are less interesting: Tommy, the boy she falls in love with, has a healthy curiosity about the reality of their situation, but he’s a blockhead in romantic matters. Ruth, Kathy’s friend and for a long time Tommy’s girlfriend, is a bit of a mean girl, who from the first expects her friends to go along with her self-deceptions in order for her to look better in the eyes of other pupils/students. The power play between the three, and how they’re affected by the presence of others outside of their circle, makes for an engaging read.
I wasn’t heart-broken over Kathy or the other characters, but their fate is affecting enough, and satisfyingly, answers to the questions you have been posing to yourself are provided towards the end. Ishiguro isn’t too fancy to tie up loose ends, for which I was thankful. If you feel up to reading something high-brow and gently melancholy, then Never Let Me Go is a good bet. The Swedish Academy did something right there (you knew that one was coming, right?).