Never Let Me Go by author Kazuo Ishiguro
Never Let Me Go is the kind of book we’re all supposed to like. It’s the kind of book you’d be forced to read in school and have long discussions about how brilliant it is. It’s the kind of book that I can’t help but dissect and point out every reason you’re wrong for liking it.
Never Let Me Go is also the kind of book that is impossible to get into without revealing spoilers. I will mark where they begin so that you can avoid them if you’d prefer.
The novel is purposefully vague for at least the first third of its length. It’s very mysterious. Who are carers? What are donors exactly? What is this odd school?
We follow young Kath as she attends an isolated school full of children with her same destiny. They are not taught traditional lessions, there is a strong focus on art over everything else. We learn that all of these children are fated to be “donors.” But the author doesn’t yet tell us what that means.
Kath is your normal school girl. She has crushes and friend drama and participates in all the normal childhood activities. The bulk of the book follows her relationship with her toxic best friend Ruth and the boy in the awkward romantic interest triangle, Tommy.
The story is told through Kath’s point of view as she reminisces and recalls all of these stories. The biggest problem with the beginning third of the book is that I have no idea why I care about any of these obnoxious characters.
We haven’t learned the point yet so it’s just banal stories of childhood and then goes into teen drama. A lot of subtle backstabbing and manipulation at the hands of Ruth and a lot of ignorance from Tommy.
It’s hard for me to relate to whatever is going on with these characters because we actually know very little about them. Trying to feel for a story with purposefully withheld information is always going to be a challenge and since the characters are also extremely unlikeable it’s nearly impossible.
Then we get our first reveal.
It’s pretty obvious but donors means organ donors. The children are being raised to be living donors for whatever can be harvested from them.
This brings up several questions for me. Why bother teaching and providinng full lives for organ sacks? Why have farms of organ donors at all? Why are so many organs needed in this world? And most importantly, who in the absolute world is paying for this extraordinarily expensive means of providing organs for sick people?
Well, none of these questions will be answered by the end. We’re supposed to go along with this premise and see some sort of resigned beauty in their tragedy. We’re not supposed to ask these questions. Well I still have them and without answers this book is just plain dumb.
As the rest of the story goes along we learn that after school was completed Kath became a carer, someone who cares for the donors. It’s unclear what all that actually entails, but apparently she was really good at it. So while all of her other classmates moved on to donations she continued to care. And she cares for both Tommy and Ruth.
Among the donors there was a long standing rumor that donors who can prove they’re in love could somehow get a deferral and postpone their final donations, aka death. Why in the world would this be? Once again, we’re not supposed to question how absolutely ludicrous that sounds. We’re supposed to believe in true love and root for it to overcome their really stupid conflict in a world that makes zero sense.
So after Ruth’s toxic self dies, leaving permission for Kath and Tommy to finally be together, they go on a mission to find someone that could give them a deferral. For plot reasons they find the person who can fill them in on everything very easily and quickly.
They are told there are no deferrals, that they are clones for this purpose alone, and that they attempted to humanize them but that program is over now. Sorry, better luck in the next life.
Here’s another question I have. If this society has so mastered cloning that they can easily create human clones that are fully healthy and functional why in the world can they not just clone the organs needed for all of these other completely unhealthy people overruning the planet? Seriously, what world is this?
All of the revelations made to Kath and Tommy are presented in a longwinded and boring expositional speech that is not only poorly written but comes far too late. I had figured out most of it by this point so this speech seemed redundant and insulting to me as a reader, as though I couldn’t possibly have deduced all of this myself from context.
My final question is why do none of the donors seem to know anything about their own situation in the world, about the outside world, or about the option of just leaving? They’re not prisoners, just leave. Get up and walk away and don’t get harvested. No questions are answered in this book.
The only reason that Never Let Me Go is a 2 star and not a 1 star review is that I did want answers to all of my questions. I kept reading because I was legitimiately curious about the world being created here. It’s just extremely unfortunate that that world is severely underwritten.
Never Let Me Go is a premise only. It’s not a plot, it’s not a coherently built world, it’s a musing. The second you start to ask questions and really think about its implications it completely falls apart.
I would only recommend reading Never Let Me Go as part of a group, it is mandatory that you be able to discuss this one. You’ll have many questions and it will help to have someone to answer them for you since they’re not written into the pages.
The novel has been adapted into a 2010 movie starring Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, and Andrew Garfield. Great cast for a movie I never knew got made.
2/5 carers 🤱🤱
Instead of Never Let Me Go try Merging the Drift, read an indie novel damnit!
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5 thoughts on “Never Let Me Go, Book Review”
I actually loved the book. I see why people might find fault with it but I think it’s much cleverer than you think. On the other hand, I agree that this is probably the sort of book you‘ll enjoy more when you read it as part of a group. There‘s just so much you can discuss. Thanks for your honest review!
I found your site because I read your really helpful review of I Am Not Okay With This. I clicked on the review of Never Let Me Go because I’m one of those apparently obnoxious English teachers who assigns this book and attempts to discuss it deeply with my students. I laughed in self-recognition while reading the beginning of your review. And I just had to leave a comment because I disagree with much of your interpretation. I’m not trying to argue that the book is some work of genius or unassailably perfect and I’m not trying to say you have to like it. However…
I don’t think readers are expected to accept this cruel world that creates clones to harvest their organs, and even forces the organ donors to first care for their friends as they sacrifice their lives piece by piece. I don’t think we’re ever supposed to believe the myth that clones who love each other can get a deferral either – we’re supposed to recognize the cruel hope (and inevitable disappointment) of such a rumor and perhaps we should pity the naïveté of the characters for believing it (they are children, after all, with very little understanding of their own society through no fault of their own). And the clones don’t appear to me to have been created to support a bunch of unhealthy people “overrunning” the planet – the descriptions of empty roads that Kath spends her days driving lead me to believe that 1) there’s a small population of people exploiting the clones and 2) we should see the hollow sham of this system for what it is.
Finally, the most horrifying part of the novel is seeing how people can participate in abuse and be victims of abuse without rebelling against it. The realization that many people will question the system that exploits them (or that they unfairly benefit from) yet will go along with it anyway is perhaps the most realistic and most terrifying way a dystopian novel could be written. And don’t we see all around us the evidence that this idea is true? And the best the organizers of Hailsham could do is put these children through a bunch of art exercises to try to prove they have souls? It’s terrible, and it hits a little close to home for me as a white woman in the US.
I wonder if you might have enjoyed the book more if the characters had pulled you in from the beginning – for whatever reason I kind of liked Kath, maybe because I can relate to putting up with toxic friendships longer than I really should. 🙂
Anyway, thanks for an interesting review. I like to hear different opinions of books generally, but especially the ones I use in my classes. I appreciate how clearly you develop the logic behind your opinions.
This is exactly why this is a good book for school. It’s easy to see how personal experience can change interpretation and make this one great for discussion! Thank you for the dissenting opinion!
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