Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Never Let Me Go

I'm the first to admit that I easily get swept up by the bandwagon when something big rolls around.  I take almost giddy delight in reading reviewer's quotes on the back of nearly every book I read.  So, when on the cover of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go (2005), Time magazine declares the book to be "the best novel of the decade," I go into it with fairly high expectations.  Moreover, Never Let Me Go is held up as a stirring expression of the moral disquietude that often comes hand-in-hand with advances in biomedical science, a field which is near and dear to my own heart.

The story itself revolves around a three children who are raised at Hailsham, a boarding school nestled in the English countryside.  Kathy H., the narrator of the novel, provides a window into Hailsham through her recollections of day-to-day life with her friends.  In the course of these vignettes, it becomes clear that Hailsham is no ordinary school.  The children, while seemingly well cared-for by their guardians, are not taught the skills necessary to lead an independent life and, arguably more damaging to them, lack any nurturing emotional connections save those they clumsily forge amongst themselves.

As they grow older, the children slowly come to the realization of exactly who and what they are.  As it turns out, they are clones being raised to provide organs needed by others in the outside world.  At some point in their lives, each of them will become a donor and eventually, unable to give any more, will "complete."  There is no great moment of realization here.  Instead, the children catch snippets of information about what their future holds here and there as they grow older, and are, remarkably, almost wholly unphased by the revelation.

While Kathy spends a good deal of time trying to understand how they become aware of their role in the world, she never once comments on the injustice of the system.  And therein lies what, to me, is the most tragic circumstance of Never Let Me Go.  The society portrayed in the novel has set up a quiet, out-of-view system to essentially strip the humanity from the cloned children.  The psychological tools needed to question or otherwise analyze their circumstance are purposefully withheld from them, and, as a result, they are left to float through life detached from many of the things that make us humans who we are.  And everyone in the outside world benefiting from the clones' existence is quietly complicit.

The lack of overt action and sparse plot might be difficult for some readers to overcome (as they certainly were for me).  I had trouble at times mustering the fortitude to endure another seemingly mundane conversation between Kathy and her friends.  However, thinking back over the novel as a whole has made me realize that Never Let Me Go has much to offer a thoughtful reader!

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