Battlepanda: Bookblogging: Never Let Me Go


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Bookblogging: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I suppose I should start this review with a disclaimer that spoilers lie ahead. But honestly, folks. This is not the Sixth Sense. Being a book by Kazuo Ishiguro, this is "Literature" with a capital "L" despite the sci-fi trappings.

The narrator, Kath, is your typical Ishiguro first-person narrator -- conversational, confessional and oddly emotionally detached. The boarding school Hailsham is seen as though through a scrim on a bright summer's day, brilliant, yet hazy. How does one write a dreamy and contemplative book about a subject matter as gruesome and dystopian as an English boarding school churning out organ donors to be harvested in their prime after an idyllic childhood? Yet Ishiguro has done it. Never Let Me Go never, never dips into sensationalism. It never goes 1984 on you. It is not a cautionary tale. Ishiguro wrote not to illicit horror, disgust, moral indignation or fear, but convey a crushing, poignant sadness. A big and universal sadness that pervade all his books.

The organ harvesting process is never treated in the book as anything other than completely normal. Ishiguro throws up a host of convincing terms, conventions, slang, and lore that gives his descriptions an air of mundane reality. The harvesting process is called "donation". "Donors" are cared for by "carers", who become donors in their turn. The organs are taken in a series of operations. Dying in the first or the second is considered dreadfully unfortunate, and not talked about much. But surviving til your fourth is considered a triumph and everybody would want to shake your hand. As if there is a meaningful difference between whether or not one had the extra months of languishing in a hospital room, waiting. All donors are clones and they wonder about their "possibles", the original person they're cloned from. When they finally die, they are said to have "completed". These are not sinister euphemisms but manifestations of the societal conventions that keeps the protagonists tightly bound to their fate much as the butler Stevens was bound by his narrow definition of "correctness" in Ishiguro's classic, The Remains of the Day. In that book, Stevens would not defy societal expectations to seek love and happiness. In Never Let Me Go, the lovers Kath and Tommy would literally not defy societal expectations to save their lives.

There are no physical barriers, it seems, between the world of the "students" (clones) and normal society. There are no fences around hospitals and schools. They're allowed vehicles, freedom to travel, even their own apartments. The students are disciplined through the mere inculcation of norms. I find it interesting that the only instance of actual punishment we hear about (and even then only as a rumor among the students) concerns a girl who ran away from Hailsham. She was simply kept out and died at the gates begging to be let back in.

It's not that the students don't try to avert their fate, but they only attempt to do so through bargaining with the system somehow. It never occurs to them to get in their cars and drive away. One of the most wrenching scenes in the book takes place in a restaurant where two students from a less 'prestigious' school asks Ruth about the rumor, which Ruth has been encouraging, that Hailsham students sometimes got "deferrals" if they can prove their intrinsic worth by showing that they're really in love. What they ask (a three-year stay) is so paltry, yet their furtive attitude betrays how they feel they have stepped over the bounds, have asked for something that was not their lot.

What is better in the long run in the face of a reality that is ultimately merciless? To let futile hopes blossom while they can, or to snuff them out to save them from becoming dashed? Miss Lucy, one of the teachers at Hailsham, was determined to put a stop to adolescent fantasies of becoming football players or movie stars among the students. In order to have "decent lives", she believed, the students needed to come to terms with their reality. Miss Emily, the founder of the school, on the other hand, believed in sheltering the students for as long as possible so that they may develop into whole persons without the burden that full acknowledgement of their ultimate purpose would bring.

Most of the students, it seems, choose something of the middle route. They cherish their dreams in their youths before putting them away one by one like toys they've outgrown, hopefully before they collide with reality. Until at long last they give in to complete acceptance.