Never Let Me Go (audio; reread)

never-let-me-go-m6r797lI’m a very easy sell when it comes to dystopian fiction. In fact, I can’t think of a single piece of dystopian literature that I didn’t like, so it’s no surprise that I liked Never Let Me Go. I first read it with my book club back when it was fairly new and recently reread it on audio, and it held up to the reread.

I’ve described Never Let Me Go as speculative fiction for readers who aren’t into “that kind of thing.” I would generally never suggest a sci-fi or fantasy novel to my book club, but this book went over well. I think it’s because it reads like straight-up literary fiction. You only encounter the dystopian elements as they relate to the characters and their relationships with each other. On the first page, we learn that the main character, Kathy, has been a carer for 11 years, a long career for a carer. It’s not until well over halfway into the book that we learn exactly what a carer does.

The book, written entirely from Kathy’s perspective, is her reflection on her life and especially on her relationships with two of her schoolmates, Ruth and Tommy. Like many young girls with long-standing friendships, she and Ruth alternate between being friends and rivals. Because Ruth knows Kathy’s deepest secrets, she can hurt her more than anyone else can, and Kathy is more aware of Ruth’s faults than anyone else is.

Because Kathy is the one telling the story, Ruth comes across as more of the villain, and she does in fact do and say some dreadful things. But, although Kathy is fair-handed enough to share some of the mean things she herself did and said, she never seems truly apologetic, and for that reason, I could never quite trust her. Kathy seems to believe that she understands both Ruth and Tommy, but I’m not so sure. Even on the second reading, I couldn’t quite decide if her perspective was entirely to be trusted or if she was subtly stacking the deck in her own favor. I don’t know if Ishiguro intended for us to feel this skepticism about Kathy’s account, but I certainly did.

If you don’t know what this book’s about, be aware that there are SPOILERS AHEAD: Most dystopian fiction causes me to think about the decisions we make as a society and where these decisions could lead, if followed to their most extreme conclusions. Never Let Me Go never really tickled that part of my brain because I could not actually see us going to quite these lengths to create harvestable organs. And that’s odd because I have been able to go along with more extreme alternate futures. I think the difference with Never Let Me Go is that Ishiguro actually sets this book in an alternate present, instead of an alternate future. In the world of the novel, a society that looks pretty much exactly like our own has already taken the logical steps that would lead us to create the system that Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are caught up in. If the novel had been set in the future, I could perhaps have seen the potential, but today … no.

However, by setting the novel in the present, Ishiguro gives us characters who share the same cultural background that we have. For example, Kathy remembers listening to tapes and the advent of Walkmen. Because of this, the characters are much more relatable than they would have been had they grown up listening to “music cells” on their “audio implants.” It makes the character-driven aspects of the novel much more successful than is typical of dystopian fiction, but the dystopia itself is a little less scary. Then again, relationships between teenage girls are scary enough without adding in organ harvesting, so perhaps it’s all to the good. And really, are Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy any different from the rest of us? We all have to grapple with what our lives mean, and whether our paths are laid out for us and how much choice we have. And death hangs over us all; Kathy and her friends just have a clearer idea of how and when it will come, which makes the existential questions more urgent, but not any more significant.

This entry was posted in Audiobooks, Contemporary, Fiction, Speculative Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Never Let Me Go (audio; reread)

  1. peter says:

    Hi Teresa,
    I think Never Let Me Go is a great book. It says so much about what it means to be human.

  2. Steph says:

    I think I’m really one of the few people on this planet who read this book and didn’t love it (then again, this was another book club read, and no one else there much cared for it either). Maybe it’s what Ishiguro was going for, but I just was left cold by the whole thing; something about the writing made all of the characters come across as flat, and I found it extremely difficult to get involved in Kathy’s plight. Also, I thought the book was pretty predictable in terms of the plot twists and where it went, and there were few surprises in its pages for me. Personally, I felt that Ishiguro wrote about topics that are inherently controversial/incendiary and that he himself didn’t bring much to the table; I guess I felt that all of the emotion in the story comes from the reader, because who wouldn’t have an automatic, visceral response to Kathy’s situation? I didn’t feel that Ishiguro shaped those emotions through his characters or his prose, and that irked me.

    But again, clearly I am in the minority on this one! I was fully expecting I would love this because I do generally have a fondness for dystopian fication, but this one didn’t do it for me.

  3. lena says:

    I absolutely loved this book when I read it. And much like you, dystopian literature is kind of my thing.

    I agree with you about it being set in the future. Part of what I loved so much about it was how relatable it was; I don’t know that I would have felt that if it was set in 2070 or something. I was left wondering though… if we really had the tools to clone and harvest people… if we really wouldn’t? Science seems to move forward with or without a majority rule.

    Great review and definitely a great book. I’m glad it stood up to the test of the re-read. :)

  4. Teresa says:

    Peter: Yeah, there’s a universality to the story (i.e., death) that’s much bigger than the plight the characters are in.

    Steph: I get what you’re saying about the flatness of the writing–I’ve heard that complaint before actually. It didn’t really bother me, although I think it did contribute to my not trusting Kathy. She couldn’t be quite so detached about everything that happened unless she’s putting up a front, right?

    Lena: Yeah, the setting really made the characters work for me, and I think that’s what Ishiguro is interested in–more than the ethical considerations. Would we do this kind of thing if we could? I don’t know–I hope not. But as you say, science does march on, although I do think it would take several generations before we got to the point described in this book.

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