I’ve been on a book-reading marathon lately… 3 books finished in a month. These are more books than I read in the months leading up to August. While the first two works of nonfiction (The Dirty Life, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) had been special in their own little ways, it has been a while since I’ve been so thoroughly engrossed and disturbed by a novel like Never Let Me Go.
Be warned. I make no apologies here for spoiling the story for the lot of you who haven’t read the book. This entry isn’t supposed to be a review so much as a critical analysis. If you intend to read the novel at some point, don’t read what I have to say. Just head on over to the Kindle bookstore and download a copy. There’s no point in wasting time.
Disclaimer aside, I’d like to just give my thoughts on some of the themes and motifs of Kazuo Ishiguro’s little masterpiece.
Our invisible boundaries of ignorance
Margaret Atwood wrote in her review of the book in Slate:
One motif at the very core of Never Let Me Go is the treatment of out-groups, and the way out-groups form in-groups, even among themselves.
One of Ishiguro’s most salient themes throughout the book came by the way he contrasted the microcosmic student universe of Hailsham with the wider world. Where the boarding school had its cliques and groups of outcasts, the greater society to which it barely belonged saw Hailsham itself as the place for outcasts.
Many reviewers asked why the Hailsham students didn’t run, so as to match the happy endings of other dystopian novels. This omission isn’t so much a mistake on Ishiguro’s part as much as deliberate commentary on the invisible bubble we all live in. The students did not run because they could not run… or rather, could not conceive of running. To them, the only freedom they had came by way of permission from the Madame, which was freedom granted, not taken. In this sense, Ishiguro makes the claim that though our reality is shaped by personal decision, those decisions cannot transgress the circumstances through which they have been informed.
In the end, the students had been misled by lies to such a degree whereby even their hopes (to have life extended a few more years) come off as pathetic and inconsequential. Pondering this theme, I was reminded of the stories of China’s Yangtze River farmers who, faced with the destruction of their livelihoods and community, haggled with local officials over the money paid for relocation. As one commentator noted, by having the downtrodden focus on the inconsequential challenges of daily life, the authorities can avoid a revolution.
Life is the journey, not the destination
Miss Emily and Miss Lucy played to these dueling viewpoints. Miss Lucy, in all her desire to tell the students what they should’ve learned all long, represented the idea that life only has meaning if our fate (our destination) is free to choose. What was the point of living such bucolic, carefree childhoods if the students were to be tricked into donating their vital organs after leaving Hailsham? Was it moral to help the children avoid the greater truth of donations in order to give them a childhood?
Miss Emily seemed to think so. In a message reminiscent of carnivorous but humane animal rights activists promoting cage-free grazing for cows, Miss Emily believes that despite a shortened life, every minute of a clone’s life could be lived to the fullest. She claimed it was Hailsham who gave them a life worth living, even if it meant the truth had to be hidden for so long.
Many of the book’s passages describe the events surrounding Sales and Exchanges, the only places where students may acquire material possessions. On the other hand, there is little description of the characters’ physical appearances… and even less about their bodies. This again, was not an accident.
Ishiguro drew focus to the books, cassettes, paintings, and puzzles as these were the only ways students could express themselves. They became attached to worldly objects, the inanimate trinkets which could survive when their own bodies couldn’t. Because the students did not really possess their bodies, objects were the only way they could maintain a tenuous bond to the world, even if the world they witnessed was but a shell of all that was hidden from them.
Needless to say, I really enjoyed Never Let Me Go. The prose was difficult and tedious to read at times. Yet when it was all over, the novel left behind so many questions to ponder. It is the mark of great science fiction to alter reality just enough so as to illuminate the fundamental parts of being human.