This was my first time going to a book club without having read the book in the previous month. I know what you’re thinking, that I’m falling behind. No, don’t think that. I read the book, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, in February 2013 and I didn’t think it was worth my time to re-read it so soon after. I remembered the book pretty well and only felt disconnected when our group members talked about specific word choice. Not too shabby.
We’re on a short science fiction kick in this group (and by that I mean this book and the next) and a good place to start in science fiction is the setting. I didn’t think too much about the setting when I first read this book, but our moderator said it was supposed to be an alternative 1990s England. I wondered what it was in the 90s that made Ishiguro imagine it so differently. The book was written in 2005 so he was reflecting on a time gone by. Our group proposed that it was the cloning advancements in the 90s that might have spurred this line of thought. I remember as a child hearing about Dolly the Sheep and wondering when my turn to be cloned would be. As a writer, I wonder if Ishiguro thought of the idea for this book in the 90s and didn’t get around to writing it until the early 2000s, or has been working on it since the early 2000s.
We wondered what was different about this parallel 90s that we didn’t see in the book. One member asked why there were so many organ donors needed. It’s revealed that there are many places like Hailsham where clones are raised. Is the world Ruth, Kathy, and Tommy live in more overrun with disease that large numbers of organs are needed? Is this an extension of the current National Health System? What organization has put together this system? One option we discussed is that due to advances in medicine and technology, the ‘normals’ wanted to live longer and to survive into old age, they needed young and healthy organs.
The society the ‘normals’ live in is never really explained well. We wondered if the normals knew that the clones were clones. Was there something about society that they didn’t know? Did they dress differently? Speak differently? Was there some way to know that they were not going to live to see 30? I wonder how the normals reacted to these people.
We asked each other at what point we started to suspect something was fishy in this world. One of our members only made it a few chapters into the book and she had assumed the characters lived in an orphanage. We felt that it was when donors and carers started coming up that something was fishy. One member thought the book was going to be very medical from the way ‘donor’ was used. I guess, in a way, she was right. One phrase that was used to describe the setting was ‘quietly disturbing.’ I love that.
The characters in the book grew up in such a strange environment that their development seemed a bit odd. They’re all very co-dependent on each other. They don’t have families so their relationships with the other children are very important and they’re very well aware of group dynamics and keeping everything civil between each other. Kathy and Ruth had a very competitive friendship, but Kathy was always careful to make sure it never came to a head. Tommy was a sort of game between the two girls and even when Kath had feelings for him, she never said anything because he was with Ruth. How much Ruth and Tommy made a good couple or Ruth was using Tommy just to deny him to Kathy is debatable.
I don’t mean at all that the characters were poorly developed. Quite the contrary. They were developed so well that as readers our hearts were wrenched when the characters died. We cheered for Tommy and Kathy when they went to visit Miss Emily and Madame. We hoped they would get a deferment. Instead, the book took a twisted turn and we learned the full truth about Hailsham and the cloning industry. I liked that Ishiguro waited until this far into the book to describe the world more fully. The story of the one boy who tried to run away and had his hands and feet cut off stuck in a lot of our minds. It can only make us think, ‘Well, at least things were better at Hailsham.’
The question raised by this visit was if the Hailsham kids were better off. On one hand, it’s good that they had happy and fulfilling childhoods. Even though they have a bad lot in life to live, they enjoyed it while they were alive. I feel this makes it even sadder when they die. They knew happiness and what it could feel like to enjoy living and then it was cut short. We were conflicted on if we thought the Hailsham kids were lucky or unlucky.
Kath was an interesting narrator to choose. She is very detached from her life and able to describe it in a very abject way. She seems confused by the situation she finds herself in and not really sure how to describe the loss she feels her entire life. She is a carer for so long and sees everyone she loved dying off around her but is very detached from the sadness. We wondered if having her be a carer for so long was a risk to the program. Wouldn’t seeing Ruth and Tommy ‘complete’ (aka DIE A HORRIBLE DEATH) make her more likely to run? In our minds, yes. But in the world Ishiguro created, Kath had to believe on some level that what was being done to her was right and that it was for something greater than herself. And even if she did run, could she blend in to the normal society? She had no paperwork, identification, or anything to prove who she was. There was nowhere for her to go.
One of the Hailsham teachers, Miss Lucy, was kicked out of the facility for telling the kids what their future held. We wondered what the best way is to raise someone who will be used for organ donation. Do you tell that person when they’re young so that they know their whole life what their future holds? It’s a sort of brainwashing, like one hears about in extreme kidnapping cases. Jaycee Dugard didn’t run because she was brainwashed with fear. These children were brainwashed to think their bodies and lives belonged to some governmental agency that would kill them in the end.
Certain plot elements in the story were a bit strange to us. The gallery was one. Why was there so much emphasis put on creativity and art? Funny enough, I saw this video on Facebook today and it helped me answer that question.
Being able to create is proof that someone is a sentient being, a living thing capable of thought, process, and creation. (As a side note, I am assuming these elephants are just really well-trained. The idea is that people believe they are capable of creating.) Having the children create art proved the humanity of the clones and that real people were being killed for the organs. We wondered if it was some sort of ethical project to try to boycott the ‘organ farms’ where the children were raised.
Another scene we didn’t understand was when they went to see the empty boat. We were confused as to what it meant. The only thing we could come up with is that the boat took a different path than boats are supposed to take. That’s why it’s on dry land so far from water. We guessed that it was supposed to represent how the world had deviated so far from its normal path and Tommy, Ruth, and Kathy were like stranded boats. It’s a weak assumption, but it was the best we had.
The final ‘What the eff did that mean?’ scene was when they went looking for a copy of the tape Kathy wanted. What we liked about it was that they spent their time in the ‘real world,’ some of their very little time with normals, looking for something that was a memory of their time with other clones. We’re not sure what it really meant, but it was a nice nod to how they were stuck in their own reality and detached from the ‘real world.’
There were two themes I’ll discuss before I sign this off. The first is the comparison with animals. There was a reference to how the clones were bred to be sterile and we knew that the ‘normals’ didn’t like this. It gave them a sense of inferiority. There was a guess from one of the clones that they were cloned from prisoners and other undesirables of society so that normals wouldn’t feel like the clones were better than them. We kind of saw this as similar to animals raised for food. There are genetically modified chickens specifically used for large chicken breasts or more tender meat. Is that any better? Is the way science can change things creepy and too invasive? Some people are vegetarians because of this treatment. Were there people in the book’s universe who wouldn’t take organ donations because of the treatment of the donors? The characters had several connections to animals that made us wonder what kind of connection we were supposed to draw. Tommy’s art in the latter part of the book is of animal hybrids. Ruth talks about wanting to ride horses. However, there were never real animals, only drawings and references to them. We wondered what Ishiguro was trying to say.
The other interesting topic was sexuality. Because they couldn’t get pregnant, the characters had very little pause about having sex with each other. It was a very casual thing and they engaged in it because it felt good and for little other reason. Kathy doesn’t even deem her experiences important enough to tell the reader until she’s accused of not having had sex (if I recall correctly). The only concern was disease but by keeping it within the clones, that was not an issue. However, our moderator recalled that they had a negative and childish attitude toward gay sex, but our group couldn’t figure out why that would be. Any ideas?
Ishiguro’s writing is really engaging. I’ve read this book and also The Remains of the Day and I have to say I much prefer this title. He has a great style of adding enough detail to bring a passage to life without bogging it down. He likes to write about people who have a certain lot in life that can’t change and what they do with it. In his own words:
It’s something I do instinctively in my writing and with this book it was a very important feature that escape was not an option. It’s about how we’re all aware of our fate, in that we have a limited time in life. Escape isn’t an issue in the book, because it’s never really an option in our own lives. Characters like Stevens and the kids in Never Let Me Go do what we all do; try to give meaning to our lives by fulfilling some sort of duty.
Until next time, write on.
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