Saturday, November 3, 2012

Review: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me GoNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books where the Goodreads star rating system is inaccurate. I'm rating this a four, which Goodreads tells me means I "really liked it." But honestly, this story left me unsettled and disturbed. It's beautifully written, which is why it has the impact it does, and it would be a disservice to rate it lower. But I'm not rating it where I am because it was a pleasant read.

Never Let Me Go, narrated by a woman named Kathy H., starts out in an English boarding school. All seems normal, at first. Kids are bullied for standing out, the little ones are afraid of the woods bordering the school, and students trade and collect one another's artwork, skills of creating which they're encouraged to foster. As the story progresses, though, it becomes clear that something is off about the school, that the Guardians running the school aren't just keeping the normal truths of a scary world we know from the children. These students were cloned for the purpose of harvesting their organs.

Even this revelation is softened by the heavy use of euphemism. They're called "donations," as if the students have a choice in the matter, and dying after giving too many organs to survive any longer is "completing." Kathy doesn't explain this in lengthy infodumps; she gives us only peeks of the horror beneath her seeming idyllic life. The entire story is revealed in a way that feels far more real than any flashbacks I've ever read before. Kathy meanders, goes off on tangents, repeats herself, and tells events out of order as they occur to her. It adds to the sense that this is something real, and that Kathy is a real person. I listened to it on audio, which did even more to contribute to the feeling I was listening to someone narrate her life story. The audio edition is good, if you like audio books. It didn't detract from the story at all.

On the surface, there isn't a lot to this story. Going by just what happens, it's about people standing or sitting around, talking. The events aren't exciting. And yet, it's fascinating, because there is a gripping story between the lines. It's about people accepting their fates, even when people hate them for their sacrifices. It's about humanity. It's about love. It's about relationships, and the destruction toxic people can wreak. There's a theme about the need for medical ethics and putting a human face on those we'd dehumanize, but I think there was a deeper message about society's survival being on the backs of those we demonize.

The worst character in the story isn't the invisible forces consigning the characters to die on an operating room table, but Ruth, Kathy's best friend. She's selfish and manipulative and toxic, and all Kathy does is try to see things from her perspective. Even after Ruth admits her role in keeping Kathy and Tommy apart, Kathy has only sympathy for her.

This is an excellent story, beautifully crafted. It's not a joyous experience to read, though.

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