Book Review: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

A Beer & Marmalade Book of the Month

This past month, I’ve been watching the entire series of the revisioned Battlestar Galactica. It’s an awesome show, and I highly encourage people to watch it, even though there’s not an ounce of optimistic sunshine in it.

Believe it or not, Battlestar Galactica has a lot in common with Never Let Me Go, which I read in about three days. Not that it’s engrossing (though it is), but it’s a quick book to read. Both deal with the nature of clones, though where BSG’s clones are theiving, conniving, killing machines, the clones in NLMG are produced to give their body parts to others.

Hmm…actually, now that I think about it, they don’t have that much in common.

Whereas BSG is a wild, gritty roller coaster ride of angst and despair, NLMG is more on the quieter side. The story’s narrated by a Kathy H., who is reminiscing about her youth at Hailsham, a school which houses "special" children. Kathy is aware that she is "special", along with her best friends Ruth and Tommy. But just how special she doesn’t really know.

The book is told through Kathy’s memories, which meander and double back on themselves as she tells them to her unseen audience—other clones, no doubt. There is a certain structure to the narration, but it’s in no hurry to get to the point. If Kathy suddenly remembered something that happened before, she’ll tell it before coming back to her main story. Despite all this meandering, the narration works. We get a feel for Kathy herself as she tells her own story, an unsure woman who is not quite certain of her own memory as fact as she looks through the filter of maturity at her past.

Most of the book centers on Kathy’s relationship with Ruth, a bossy, domineering young woman who likes to manipulate people, and Tommy, an emotional young man who gets picked on by most of the school. Through the relationships, we get a wider picture of life at Hailsham itself, where facts aren’t mentioned outright and information can get downright political. The children are encouraged, not by their teachers but by themselves, to not stand out or make a scene. A young girl gets bullied by her classmates for asking a teacher why a woman called Madame comes to take their best artwork away. Though the children know they will eventually do ‘donations’, they don’t know outright what it means, nor are they encouraged to learn. Whether this passivity is bred in them when they were created, or if it’s just something the children came up with on their own, is not known.

The fact that they are clones isn’t ballyhooed right away. In fact, the word clone doesn’t appear until about 3/4 of the way into the book. What we get, then, is not so much a clone story, but a story about a bewildered young woman, always searching for the meaning behind her and others’ actions, spying upon and being spied upon, and never voicing her questions about her life, not until it’s too late. 

Perhaps this is where BSG and NLMG differ the most. I found the ending of BSG to be utterly bleak, even though they do reach their goal (of sorts). With NLMG, at the end, Kathy is resigned to her fate, and the last few chapters is tinged with sadness and regret. And she’s still passive: she doesn’t refuse to do her job, or try to run away. But, in telling her story to others like her, I think there is a spark of rebellion, her hope that the others would use her experience as a springboard. There’s no way of knowing, of course, but I like to think of it as a hopeful ending.

I don’t think NLMG was intended as a science fiction clone story. It deals more with silence and self-discovery, loss and regret, living one day at a time, and cherishing the memories one has, even the painful ones. It is a thoughtful, quiet story, well-suited for its slow pace. This ranks 4 out of 5 pieces of clone-done art. And if a gray haired woman named Madame wants to take it away, I’ll make sure she pays for it first. Not in lousy tokens, but in cold, hard cash.