I’ve long thought that a story following the normal life of someone during a really pivotal time in history would be quite interesting. I’ve absolutely adored Derry Girls’ approach of regular people living a regular life while mayhem is sort of sprinkled into their lives. Never Let Me Go is an altogether different take on the idea, the softest touch of science fiction.
Plot: Ruth, Tommy and Kathy are students at a British prep school. What are they being prepped for? Not anything we expect these kinds of students to be prepped for. There is no politics in their future, no fame or fortune, not even the humble goal of being a generic office drone. We follow as these kids grow up, knowing a lot about what they’re not and very little about what they are or what is facing them.
It’s hard to describe the experience of reading this book. Ishiguro did get a Nobel for this, so I suppose that’s not surprising. Because the protagonists of the book are so isolated, we know very little about the world they inhabit. It looks a lot like our own based on the exposure they do get to TV, movies, and technology. This is no doubt deliberate, because Ishiguro is making a not at all subtle comparison between these “schools” whose function is obviously not preparing these kids for adulthood in any meaningful sense and other similar institutions from our real world. In case you miss it, he even throws in a direct reference to concentration camps, though I think Indian Residential Schools are a much more apt comparison (in his defense, he’s British, and these were a post-colonization exercise in the West so I doubt it’s covered in the British education system). It made me realize that likely a very very many people have suffered under systems they not only didn’t understand, but had no concept of. How big a leap it actually takes to see an oppressive structure clearly enough for even the thought of it maybe being good or bad to come into your mind. It is a sort of mirror to all the dystopian teen novels we now have where the Bad Guys are clear from page one, our protagonist knows by page five that The System is Bad, and by halfway through the book has already found a clear path to dismantling it, usually by donning a fancy outfit and killing someone. How would a 16 year old even have enough exposure, in the vast majority of situations, to know a societal structure is anything other than just the way things are?
What that means though is that this is not going to be a book you close feeling good. This is not a linear Good Guys Triumph story. This is the real world of oppression – it’s quiet, built into the system in a way that makes it invisible, where no one person has enough power to really tip the balance, so everyone is a bit player, an NPC in their own life. I think this is meant to make the reader realize how mundane a cruel structure that strips people of their humanity can be, and how that is in and of itself a tool it uses to self perpetuate. If you’ve ever attended a city council meeting, an activist organizing meeting, or a legal proceeding, you might know how despite the importance of the work being done, it is almost impossible to stay awake for. Change isn’t just hard, it’s so boring.
And to be honest, that is also where the book falls down for me. As much as I totally get what Ishiguro was going for, I was very bored reading this book. Ruth, Tommy and Kathy live a life that is so small, their conflicts so tedious, their victories meaningless. The narrative structure is so detached that it’s like reading a news report that is hundreds of pages long about a bunch of kids growing up with not very much going on. Emotion is the foundation of this story, but very little of it comes across on the page.
That said, I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about this book, so clearly something is getting through. I’ve gone through a few books in my book club and this book sparked the most discussion. For all the little ways in which the story sparked thoughts in my head, every other reader in my book club had a bunch of different thoughts to share that hadn’t even occurred to me, which is why I think a review of this book is really difficult. It was not an enjoyable book for me, but my friends who live for dark, moody stories were quite taken with it, and we all came away with something from it we didn’t have when we started.