I’m starting to realize that I only really enjoy dystopian books when the narrative takes place in a world that’s somewhat recognizable (i.e. The Handmaid’s Tale). Never Let Me Go takes place in a world that’s just different enough from our own. There aren’t robots or thought police or anything like that, thankfully. The first part of the book shows us a bunch of human kids at a boarding school that makes sure the children stay healthy. At that point, the reader can see Hailsham and think it’s no different than a school you might find somewhere in the real world. By dropping hints over the course of the book, Ishiguro quietly peels back the layers of what is recognizable and gives us the dystopia, where certain humans are raised only so that their organs may be harvested. They’re so dehumanized that instead of dying, they “complete”, as if they were machines. It’s scary to imagine a world where such a thing would be considered acceptable. Miss Emily suggests that most people try to ignore the existence and purpose of the clones, and I guess that makes sense if such a thing happened in the real world. It’s almost like how we go to buy nice clothes at J. Crew while knowing it’s all made in inhuman labor conditions. You just try not to think about it. It’s said that Hailsham was founded to show that clones deserved humane treatment, but I would bet it’s real purpose was soothing consciences.
My favorite aspect of the book is how patient Ishiguro is in his revealing of the dystopia. He waits for the reader to get comfortable in the identifiable setting and instead of just pulling the curtain back on it all at once, he drops clues for the reader to pick up. The developing revelation feels very natural because we are first reading it from the perspective of children, who have no reason to question their surroundings until someone gives us a reason to. Miss Lucy performs this function within the narrative while Ishiguro does it for the reader. It’s a fascinating method of storytelling that I would love to encounter more often. It’s not easy to piece together a whole dystopia, but the writing is so compelling that it makes you want to do it.
This book is devastating in its reminder that death is inevitable for us all, though we push it to the back of our minds in order to survive. We don’t like to think about it, but it’s also our fate to experience the deaths of those we love, as with Kathy and Tommy. The story belongs to the characters just as much as it does to the reader, and I have to commend Ishiguro for the gentleness with which he makes this suggestion. I think a lot of writers want to approach issues of mortality with a Hemingway-esque mindset, reminding us to be brave and as fearless as possible in the face of it all. That’s why I appreciate Ishiguro’s reminder that death doesn’t have to be anything at all, since it just is. Never Let Me Go beautifully handles the difficult and elusive concept of death, and acting almost as a parable for its readers.
All in all, I highly recommend this astoundingly beautiful book. Remember to keep tissues with you towards the end.