Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is an example of a subtle type of dystopian novel – one which never completely acknowledges its dystopian genre and instead acts as if what happens in the book is completely normal. Unlike traditional favourites like 1984, there is nothing overtly sinister about the world which Kathy inhibits; if anything, it goes more to the other end of the spectrum, where everything is eerily perfect and only trivialities begin to shake the reader’s view of the world being normal. And in fact, the world is completely normal – no dictators, secret police, robots, drone-like working conditions – and only one thing in Ishiguro’s world differs from our own: science has been able to achieve human cloning.
The story follows protagonist Kathy, a small and quite timid girl who has to compete with her best friend, the demanding, strong and pretty Ruth, as she grows up in an idyllic boarding school, Hailsham, and goes on to live independently and take on the ambiguous job of a “carer.” While the reader follows Kathy’s growth, including her love for Tom, whom Ruth is now dating as a sort of show of power, they also watch in a mixture of horror and confusion as the true nature of the three characters’ lives are unfolded: those at Hailsham, and the characters which become important in later adult life, are all “donors,” clones which will one day be harvested for their organs to save human lives.
What the novel does by making this truth completely acceptable to not only the humans of the book but also the clones themselves – and through them the reader – is create an eerie world where it seems institutionalised murder is completely normal. Of course, this then leads you to wonder whether it is murder, and whether those who create the clones are justified in their actions, leading you into a ethics debate on a far greater issue: to what extent should we be allowed to meddle with life to meet our own ends? Ishiguro makes the subject even murkier by proving, through Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, that the clones are essentially just normal people. They have petty squabbles, close friendships and intense love for each other – and when rumours abound that Hailsham will offer a true, romantic couple the chance to opt out of the donor program to remain with each other without having their lives cut short, you watch the heart-crushing consequences of what raising the clones’ hopes can do. It is clear that the characters have just as much right and ability to live in happiness in the normal human world, but this is completely denied to them.
Looked at from this angle, the book is an incredibly poignant exploration of the boundaries and ethics of medical science made real through its effects on human emotion. However, there is one problem with this book which cannot be avoided: it is an odd combination of both depressing and, in some places, boring. As I said in the first paragraph, the world Ishiguro creates is not overtly dystopian, and in my opinion this removes the main element of a good dystopia novel. The deliciously evil and distorted world the author creates is the place from where most of the entertainment of the genre is derived. There is something oddly exciting about a heavily industrialised society, or one which is ruled by a demanding dictatorship; it makes you imagine where our own world could end up if one part was exaggerated or exploited to such a degree as to make it a terrifying parody of itself. In contrast, the wet and windy backdrops of Shropshire and Norfolk seem dull and dim in comparison. For me, there needs to be an element of either horror or science fiction in a dystopian novel which leaves you wide awake at night imagining the weird worlds of Orwell or HG Wells, worlds which are so skewed that even the characters realise something is wrong.
The background to the novel also mirrors its plotline. While the threat of looming termination barely registers, the angst ridden reader instead has to endure incredibly long and drawn out descriptions of childhood painting sessions, jumble sales, and an odd trip to an abandoned boat. Such trivial occurrences leave you frustrated and screaming at the characters to realise that there are real horrors coming their way. While I realise this effect might be entirely deliberate, as it reinforces that idea of questioning what is normal and acceptable (would we do the same thing as Ishiguro’s humanity has, if we had the technology?), it makes for a read which can be just ridiculously boring at times, with little happening for a good number of chapters. The ending does not even make up for it, leaving me unsatisfied with the book on the whole as you wonder what it’s all for. Kathy’s writing style can also, at times, become slightly insipid. Again, this is arguably to reinforce the passivity and human vulnerability of her character, but it treads a little to close to the Bella Swan line for my liking.
Also, the book is undeniably sad, and not in the nice, soppy chick-flick way which girls tend to secretly enjoy. In an interview, Ishiguro said that he felt his book was “positive” in that, in the condensed life span he gives his characters, their ultimate focus is love – it is essentially the essence of their concentrated humanity. However, the way this loving nature is completely stamped out, first by cruel manipulation and then by cruel, clinical decisions from above, is simply depressing. While the clones may give a good impression of humanity, the humans themselves do not come off so well. I suppose I must begrudgingly admit that this technically means Ishiguro excels in the dystopian genre since he leaves you in horror, wide awake wondering what humanity really is; all those things I’ve told you make a dystopia really effective. And yet…
While writing this review, I wanted to be negative. I did not particularly enjoy this book, and wanted to make that clear. However, reading back, it seems nearly every criticism could be interpreted as a compliment, and if you want to take it as so then fair enough, I’d recommend the book. But in my opinion, regardless of how it fits my criteria in its roundabout way, I found Never Let Me Go a disappointing read. While it fulfils all its objectives in theory, even on paper, it leaves a lot to be desired for a reader. I found it bland, thoroughly unthrilling and annoyingly trivial in a way that was frustrating more than anything. An effective dystopia it may be, in that it shows you a world where something has gone terribly wrong but no one realises it, with no true resolution in the style of 1984, it is a bad book in that it is often full of inactivity, makes big deals of tiny things, and has an ending which will leave no one happy and which makes enduring the previous 200 pages completely superfluous. It’s such a good premise that it really lets you down. If you want a science fiction novel with none of the science fiction staples, then go for it. If you want a science fiction novel that has immense industry, advanced technology, robots, etc, I’d advise you to look elsewhere.