This is the first book listed on the 1001 books I must read before I die, and I did indeed actually read it several months ago. And it was incredibly good. But alas, I was foiled over and over again in my attempts to actually write a review of it.
Let’s begin, my pretties. While this is usually listed as science fiction, I think that it is base to define a book by it’s genre. I mean, I read young adult books and I enjoy them deeply; to label them for an audience that is “younger” or “more inexperienced” is limiting the impact books can have on a wider audience. And most young adult novels are anything but. I think the more appropriate term for young adult novels is bilsdungromans (German word), or the translation; coming-of-age. This novel is more appropriately labeled a bilsdungroman, as it chronicles the lives of three young individuals coming to terms with the facts of life, rather than focusing on the many ethical and moral concerns surrounding cloning and medical ethics. Anyhow, this novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (say that five times fast) is more about questions of social issues such as racism, medicinal ethics, cloning, and the roles of art and love as definitions of humanity. Set in a dystopian future, the three main characters Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth, are clones that are essentially carriers of organs for “normal” people. They grow up in a school called Hailsham, which we later find out is a social experiment to prove that clones are just as normal as “real” people, and deserve the same rights. Initially you think it’s a rather ideal life; they are free to pursue art and sports, and they get vigorous health check ups. But as you read on, you realize that while they have basic care, much of what they get is second-hand, through swap-meets (Kathy’s mix tape), and through trading among themselves (art). They are taught rudimentary things by the teachers, who are really there to provide base supervision rather than any semblance of education.
As readers, we are excruciatingly kept from vital information, just as Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth are. We do not find out that they are clones in an outstanding scene, but rather are left to figure it out through the subtle clues that the teachers leave for them to discover. Much as we evolve into adulthood and a deeper understanding of human nature and personal purpose, do the main characters discover the more shallow and juvenile workings of adolescence and their personal purpose, which is to submit themselves to be used as carriers of organs. This sort of subtle plot is maddeningly irritating, because we want to know what is happening to the characters, and are driven by an almost savage curiosity; why are they at this very peculiar school? What are the teachers hiding from them? Why does the headmistress cry when she sees Kathy dancing and singing to the mix tape? However, unlike most books the characters in this novel do not share our same need for knowledge; rather, they accept their lifestyle and future because they don’t know any better (being kept from the outside world for most of their lives) and they are shielded from all information about their fate. This sort of subtle, understated narrative reflects on the way that people naturally make a life out of what they are offered; a smaller experience of living, such as the one that Tommy, Ruth, and Kathy have, directly contributes to their lack of understanding about social expectations amongst one another, and how the world works; resulting in their utterly childish arguments and plots, even as they are adults. In fact, it is only in the end when they realize their fate to be carers (Kathy) and doners (Tommy and Ruth) do they finally react and attempt to change in any way. This is such an interesting concept of human development; do we only realize our full potential when we see what our final fate is to be? Can we not reach our full capacity without being first shown all the possibilities in which we will fail? Ah, the conundrum and dichotomy of coming-of-age.
More than that, at it’s very base this novel calls into question debates on medicinal ethics, and the definition of what it means to be human. I’m going to wax nerdy here and recall to your mind the character of Data in Star Trek (TNG). Data is a robot, and yet outside of the capacity for true emotion he functions as a human. He even has a pet cat. Outsiders to the crew often treat Data as a piece of machinery/technology, but the crew of the Enterprise generally treat Data as an equal, a friend, and in some episodes, as even a FULLY functioning man.
But obviously as we garner more scientific knowledge about the human body, the question of cloning comes up more and more often. Are clones still people? This is an issue that runs deeply throughout the entire book, as the children not only struggle to find their own humanity (as each person inevitably does while growing up, with the possible exception of sociopaths), but to prove to the outside world that they are human. Obviously, we learn by the end of the novel that Hailsham was a failed project to prove to the outside world that clones were still people, and how did they do that? Through the medium of art. While there are some types of animals that express creativity, such as elephants and chimpanzees, for the most part we think of creativity and capability to express emotions as traits that are exclusively human. But how true is that notion? Ishiguro explores this theme through the character of Tommy, who doesn’t produce “good” art by the student’s standards, but is perhaps the most emotional and expressive character in the book. And how about love? We know that for medical reasons the children are all sterile; does that define them as non-human? I certainly hope not. While the ability to procreate is a special part of some people’s human experience, people who are infertile are most certainly still people.
What about love? The last hope of the students is that true love will save them, or at least delay the time before they are “harvested”. While Tommy and Ruth are in a relationship, Ruth is manipulative and cold; it is really Tommy and Kathy, as we discover, who have special, more deep feelings for each other. The climax of the novel could be considered when they go to the former headmistress to ask for a pardon/extension of their time because they are desperately in love. Of course, the headmistress breaks down at that point and much of the mystery of the plot is revealed. There is no escape, there is no hope. There is no other future for them; they are completely and utterly helpless.
I think that this relates back to the title of the book in a very big way. Never Let me Go not only refers to the song that Kathy loves to sing; in which we think the headmistress is crying because she is mourning that Kathy, who is mothering a baby (even though she hasn’t had any education as to reproduction/parenting, she intuitively knows that mothers love and care for babies, which is another interesting point of contention as to whether or not she’s human: nature vs. nurture?) because Kathy is sterile. But as readers, we can see it as Kathy holding on to a last hope of a different ending, of something to care for, that she will never have. And I’m not talking about a baby. I’m talking about life itself.
Hopefully, this book makes you want to live as much as it made me. I wanted to scream, cry, make love, draw, run, eat, and more. I wanted to live for all the living that these children didn’t do. Because more than the sad life of clones that are unable to fully live life, it’s about children who aren’t allowed to grow up or experience the world because they are not deemed good enough or whole enough; and how we shouldn’t do the same. Never let go of life, my friends.