As with a lot of the world, I learned about this novel when the 2010 movie got rave reviews and mentioned the origin of the screenplay. I heard it was a sci fi storyline with low/no tech, so of course it intrigued me to read the novel before watching the movie. A Japanese-British author behind it with Remains of the Day under his belt did not dissuade me at all, quite the contrary.
The story is told from the conversational narrative point-of-view of Kathy H. who is played by Carey Mulligan. I don’t know Mulligan’s work or appearance but I do know and admire Keira Knightley who costars and for a while I thought Keira played Kathy and I could hear Knightley’s voice every time I read “Hailsham”, the students’ special school, pronounced in my head.
(Spoilers ahead–I thought I would include an alert this time since this novel is also a movie with a wider total audience.)
The narrative meanders as Kathy talks about her past, as a young student at Hailsham, to being a senior student, the first year out of school at the Cottages, to the present day. Her best friends and hence the people who could hurt her the most were Ruth and Tommy but something has separated them over the years since Kathy speaks as if alone.
Amidst the academic lessons of Hailsham, the students form relationships and struggle against each other. Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are caught in a love and friendship triangle with each member in turn feeling excluded and I’m not so sure I had much empathy for any of them for I found Tommy unstable and was wary of him, Ruth was flakey and unrealistic, and Kathy seemed plagued by uncertainty.
The students were not unfeeling robots and were naturally inquisitive and their guardians were not a united front and let some information through so some exposition occurred during their school years but nothing I didn’t already intuit from reading the back cover, it seems, so it seemed very slow in pace throughout.
As a sci fi nut, the allure of the next novel I read comes from the suspension of disbelief and the immersion into a new world, facilitated with a new vocabulary seamlessly introduced. Never Let Me Go was short on jargon as it was technology, but some terms slipped in such as “possibles,” the people the students were cloned from, and “completion,” meaning death. And I’m certain Ishiguro had to throughly storyboard and consider the science in the shadows to make the main story consistent.
I found myself unsatisfied with just being emotionally immersed and feel there could be a corollary novel published explaining the universe as many of my questions, largely irrelevant to the story, went unanswered: in what order are organs donated; are people walking around the recovery centers missing appendages or non-vital organs; how are donors and their carers trained; how is a possible selected to be cloned; how do the students fit into society once they are out and about after graduation, is there culture shock and retaliation; what political debates arose about the human status of the students? There could have been a whole storyline following a character running face-to-face with their possible.
My mind went for the sensational: someone can technically die and still have more donations, the stuff of horror movies; why has Kathy somewhat inexplicably been a carer for over a decade; will they escape their fate as donors; will something horrible happen near the end?
To my dissatisfaction, but true to the actual intent of the novel, nothing sensational occurred. The guardians and mysterious Madame, as the reader could guess throughout, fought to represent the students to the outside world by displaying their art, to the point of overemphasizing its creation, in my opinion, and the big secret is that the guardians fought like crazy to open and keep a school like Hailsham afloat that educates and enables the students to have an enriched albeit short life. The students were often told they were “special” and one initially thinks it’s because they will be donors but it turns out to be the Hailsham opportunity they are talking about.
So what was the alternative, a clone/organ donor farm/jail environment? It’s kind of crass for me to speculate when the point was to immerse in the Hailsham society. Perhaps the world at large needs tangible proof of a soul like unique and exceptional art but the reader has been privy to the relationship between Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy that spanned their lifetimes. Their point of view suggests simple, sheltered lives, but the emotions are as complex and full range as any you or I experience. They were inquisitive about their lot in life, especially when the guardians’ united front faltered, and formed such strong attachments to each other despite knowing their fate, never wanting to let each other go.