July 11, 2012

Creepy, Creepy: Never Let Me Go

Last month I read Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, and enjoyed it very much. It's creepy. It's haunting. It's very subtle, the way the voice of Karen slowly gets under your skin, and the way it dawns on you, slowly, the horrors of what she's talking about. 

Despite its common categorizations, it's not science-fiction, and it's not dystopian fiction -- I suppose it's speculative, in that it pre-supposes some future state-- except that the events are supposed to take place sometime back in the 1980s.  The plot is slow, but I still found it a true page-turner. 

It's hard to talk about the book without giving too much away.  Just know that its narrated by a dispassionate young woman named Karen, and right away, she tells us that she's a "carer," and has been a good one for a number of years -- longer than the usual careers of other "carers." 

Karen's job is to help her peers -- the others like herself -- get through their "donations."  Karen tells us that she'll be wrapping up her carer career soon, and starting her own donations -- which is her destiny, her reason for being on this earth.  She doesn't question, she doesn't rail, she doesn't have anger, or even much sadness.

Those emotions are placed on the shoulders of another character, her close friend Ruth, whom she grew up with at the idyllic "boarding school" where they were raised since...infancy?  (The very earliest years of the characters are never discussed.) Ruth is the one who questions and acts out. She can be an infuriating character, in the way she lies and manipulates her friends, but really, she's just a young person trying to grab some control over a life that is never her own. 

The book is one long series of flashbacks.  Karen drives through the English countryside as a carer, travelling between one "recovery center" and another, per her assignments. (Note that she is not a true nurse, but rather, someone who is employed to do just what her title says: to care.)  As she drives, her memory is triggered by the scenery, or the weather, back to her happiest days as a student at Hailsham. Hailsham, set on acres of lovely, rural English hills is revealed to be the idyllic, cream of the crop school for the nation's population of others like herself.  Later, we're told that other schools exist with far worse conditions. 

At Hailsham, the children attend regular classes and are strongly encouraged to share their creative outpourings of art and poetry.  Kathy recollects over time the moments of darkness, of questioning, that the children experience as they're slowly given to understand their true destinies in the world. Even so, the children never demand answers, never come out and challenge the adults -- instead, all is rumor, all is secrets behind closed doors.  Clearly, the children don't really want to know.  In one crucial scene, her close friend Tommy, who isn't artistically inclined and refuses to try to create, is finally told by a rogue instructor that "it doesn't really matter" if he tries or not.  This idea is so shocking to Kathy and the other students that they immediately process it as a lie.

I can't say much more -- except that there is no action-packed climax, where "all is revealed" or all is changed forever.  Things remain the same.  Kathy is content to wrap up her life as a carer, especially because she is very alone in the world, with all her emotional connections now in the past. She's a ripe old age of about 30.

The passive, detached language of the book is very effective in underscoring the true horrors that are never discussed. To be a "carer." To donate. To be one of the unfortunate (or are they lucky?) ones who "complete" after only their first or second donation.  To travel to a city, and search a crowd of "normals" for the face of your "original." 

I can only hope that it's the wildest of fictional tales, and that none of this world ever comes to pass. 


  1. Oh my - I completely forgot I read this a couple of years ago. I'll have to pick it up again - I remember it sticking with me for days after. Have you read "The Fault in Our Stars" by John Green yet? My new favorite!!

    1. Hi Amy! Yes, it's still sticking with me, even now. I've heard lots of good things about the John Green book -- it's young adult, right? (Like The Hunger Games.)

  2. Yep, young adult. So, so, so good.

    I heard that Never Let Me Go was adapted into a movie a few years back. I have it in my Netflix queue now (too bad it's not available for instant stream!!).

    I finished Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn) this weekend. I'm not sure what I think about it just yet. It was a quick, easy read, though. A beautiful woman disappears on her fifth wedding anniversary and, of course, the husband is the prime suspect. It turned out very different than I imagined...


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