Here we have another example of how genre classification can hurt a book. Never Let Me Go is marketed as science fiction, but that’s just not true. Only the tiniest portion of this book is sci-fi. It’s unfair to readers of sci-fi to go in with one expectation and equally unfair to readers who may bypass it because of its genre. The book is a conversational look back at one woman’s life through her own eyes. It fits much better in the literary/book club style of books.
A lot of ‘stuff’ happens in the book, but not a lot of ‘things’. Kathy is telling the story of her life from her early childhood to her mid-30s, when all of her friends have started dying. This gets right to the point of the story – the thing people see as the big reveal – the cloning. But there is no big reveal. Because Kathy knows what she is. She’s always known. As a child, she may not have completely understood it, but she knew. She, and her schoolmates, were bred to be organ donors. It’s the only life she’s ever known. The author doesn’t come right out and say cloning from the start, but it’s fairly clear what’s going on. Especially since Kathy is telling us the story from her role as a caregiver to the people that used to be her friends. *Sidebar – if you want an excellent cloning story, watch Orphan Black. Seriously, it’s rad.
The strangest part of the story was the way the students were pushed to be artistic and have their art auctioned off to each other. Creativity seemed to be the only way students at Hailsham could garner any attention. The select few that were picked out for the special attention of Madam, those were important moments in their development. Those students who didn’t thrive as artists, like Tommy, became the brunt of jokes and ridicule. Those students who had something selected for ‘the gallery’ were revered. These events are given so much importance that when they’re moved from the school setting and begin partnering off, Madam takes on a messianic quality. If you had work chosen for the gallery, and you’re really, truly in love, you might be able to get your donations deferred. When Tommy and Kathy are finally together and decide to track down Madam, they realize the truth. There are no possibilities for the students. They are essentially half people. Half people who get the delightful perk of all the sex they want. So, not all bad…
After the students leave Hailsham and go to the cabins – which sound miserable, really – they start to pair off and do it pretty much all the time. Maybe it helped keep them warm when the heaters were out of juice. But this is where they discovered that they could fall in love. But the relationships never felt genuine. Kathy points out that many of their mannerisms are adopted from tv sitcoms and even those couples that are together, don’t really seem emotionally invested. Tommy and Ruth make the most awkward, off-putting couple. Ruth uses their relationship to open doors to the more senior residents. Tommy just seems to go with the flow. Kathy flounders around trying to figure out why she has stronger sexual urges than the others. They’re all friends, but none of them really seem to like each other that much. Perhaps this is one of the reasons ‘regular’ people are put off by the donors. When they finally learn that the gallery never existed, they find out that the push towards the artistic was the guardians’ way to try to prove that the children are more than just bodies. Somehow, these attempts never really find solid ground.
Even through Kathy’s storytelling, the characters never really develop any depth. Not because they’re written that way, but because they don’t have any. Even though these students have apparently been given a much better life than others in the same position, they’re never encouraged to really live. They dream of holding down office jobs or being entry level employees, all the while, knowing that these are pipe dreams. If not encouraged in some way, did these children ever really have a chance?
So, if there’s no big cloning reveal. If they’re not trying to escape their terrible fate. If Kathy and Ruth aren’t fighting over Tommy. If nothing dramatic ever really happens. What is the point of the story? Is it to think about the way we treat people? Maybe. Is it that satisfaction is our own responsibility? Perhaps. Is it that sometimes life just moves and we move with and we make the best with what we’re given? I don’t know. It’s a book that would be great to talk about. It opens up all these ideas. A book doesn’t always need to be jam packed with these crazy moments and bizarre revelations. Sometimes, life is just life and we have to live it.