Last year I read and loved Remains of the Day, my first book by Ishiguro, so I knew at some point I’ll reach for his other books. As he recently won Nobel prize in literature every bookshop has all of his books on display, I picked Never Let Me Go, probably because the title sounded familiar (because of the movie, that I haven’t seen).
The story is set in dystopian contemporary England, our protagonists are Kathy (the narrator), Ruth and Tommy. Kathy now works as the carer, but she knew Ruth and Tommy during her time at Hailsham boarding school, they were friends. Gradually we get to know that both Ruth and Tommy are now dead and Kathy at the end of the year will stop being a carer and will become a donor.
Kathy tells us about her friendship with Ruth, which was not always easy. Ruth often tends to be cruel and she pretends and lies to build and keep her position. When she is alone with Kathy she tends to be more honest and caring, but as soon as other people are around she is focused on how they perceive her. You can probably tell I don’t like Ruth very much. Tommy on the other hand is the school’s pariah when the story starts, he is not talented and art is a very important subject in Hailsham, because of that other kids start teasing him and his spectacular tantrums just encourage them to go on. At some point however things change for Tommy, one of the teachers, or guardians as they are called, tells him art is not that important, which helps Tommy to find his balance.
We can see almost from the beginning that Kathy has feelings for Tommy, but it is Ruth he is in relationship with during their school years. Both Tommy and Kathy are impacted by Ruth’s mood swings. Then after the school is over all of them are separated, it happens at a time when Kathy is really fed up with Ruth and she is the first to leave. They only get in touch years later, when Ruth is already a donor and Kathy becomes her carer. They try to patch things up, remember the good times in Hailsham and at some point Ruth wants them both to visit Tommy, who is also a donor. What happens next is easily predictable and a bit too touchy for my liking, but nonetheless Ishiguro manages to avoid sliding into complete kitsch.
Like all good sci-fi and dystopian novels this one is about what does it mean to be a human being, can the definition change depending on circumstances. What is it that makes us human? It is also a book about friendship, how it evolves and how it can break. It does become a romance at times, love definitely plays an important role. But somehow I just couldn’t connect with Kathy, her voice felt distant almost dispassionate. She accepts her fate, not only her but all future donors seem to accept their fate, there is no thought that things could be different, that what is happening is unfair. I just could not accept that. I understand they were all conditioned to live this way and it is the only life they know, but once they are out in the real world they are bound to be questioning things and yet they don’t, they’re almost in complete denial, aware and yet not aware of their fate. The question here is a bit similar to one of the topics in The Handmaid’s Tale: can some people be deemed as less human and therefore subject to other rules and laws, is there any situation that justifies it and how come it is happening so often. Ishiguro does not answer this question, but very neatly puts it in front of us to ponder.
Have you read any fantastic dystopian novels recently?
Two quotes as a dessert:
None of you will go to America, none of you will be film stars. And none of you will be working in supermarkets as I heard some of you planning the other day. Your lives are set out for you. You’ll become adults, then before you’re old, before you’re even middle-aged, you’ll start to donate your vital organs. That’s what each of you was created to do.
You see, we were able to give you something, something which even now no one will ever take from you, and we were able to do that principally by sheltering you. Hailsham would not have been Hailsham if we hadn’t. Very well, sometimes that meant that we kept things from you, lied to you. Yes, in many ways we fooled you. I suppose you could even call it that. But we sheltered you during those years, and we gave you your childhoods.
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska