I’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.