by Rachel Cliburn
[[WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS]]
The winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature normally comes as a surprise. Japanese-British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro was a dark horse contender for the esteemed award. Though he’s had commercial success (two of his books were made into movies), such popularity is normally a factor that precludes favor from the Swedish Academy. But as part of the award announcement, the secretary of the academy describes his work as a mix of “Jane Austen and Franz Kafka….but you have to add a little bit of Marcel Proust into the mix.”
I had never read any of Ishiguro’s works, or seen any movie adaptations of his novels. After he was awarded the Nobel at the beginning of this month, I read Never Let Me Go. It had sat on my ‘to-read’ shelf for years, as I never felt motivated to read about British boarding school life.
Y’all. So glad I read it. Never Let Me Go is the story of a 30-something-year-old woman, Kathy, looking back on her time at an art-oriented private boarding school in the British countryside. [[SPOILERS AHEAD]] As the reader is immersed in Kathy’s first-person recounting of her young social life and coming-of-age struggles, you also come to realize that something’s not quite right. For one, Kathy has no memories before the boarding school. No one comes to visit them, and they never meet people from the ‘outside world.’ The teachers tell the students that they are different, and that they should never dream of having any other job than the one set out for them. They are told that they will have to make “donations” after they leave the school. And why do the students have to make so much art—art that the school administrators regularly confiscate? The reader gradually comes to realize that the students are human clones, created with the sole purpose of donating organs for the benefit of ‘normal’ humans. We learn that while most clones are raised in factory farms, the art-heavy boarding school is an experimental environment to see if clones have souls (as revealed by their artistic works). Kathy looks back on all of this, reminiscing on her idyllic youth right before she is required to give up her body.
What a ride. I’ve never read a book that is so slow-paced but so gripping. This book straddles memoir, romance, sci-fi, and horror genres, with a very generous heaping of classic British understatements and meaningful small moments. The narrator, Kathy, is never bitter, accusing, or sad about her fate. She doesn’t ask questions about her society. That is left entirely up to the reader. The book is essentially an ethics prompt—it never actually addresses the questions that it provokes.
It’s obvious to the reader that Kathy has a soul. Her childhood friends are sometimes cruel, but it never crosses the reader’s mind that they are empty, or anything less than human. However, Kathy and her friends are completely accepting of their fate as organ donors. My 21st century sensibilities tell me that the fictional clone organ donor program is awful–totally morally repugnant. Another character describes the positive side to human cloning: “by the time people became concerned about… about students, by the time they came to consider just how you were reared, whether you should have been brought into existence at all, well by then it was too late. There was no way to reverse the process. How can you ask a world that has come to regard cancer as curable, how can you ask such a world to put away that cure, to go back to the dark days? There was no going back. However uncomfortable people were about [clone] existence, their overwhelming concern was that their own children, their spouses, their parents, their friends did not die from cancer, motor neuron disease, heart disease.”
If we lived in a future society in which diseases were curable, at the expense of a perfectly willing sub-caste of clones, would we do it? Would we feel compassionate towards the clones? Would it be worth educating them, pretending that they have any function in society outside of their ultimate death? Would it be more compassionate to keep them mentally handicapped, so that they never were aware of the extent of their own sacrifice? Again, my gut recoils at the thought of willingly creating such a system, but I’m not sure how steadfast I could be if I had a child with cancer.
The genius of Never Let Me Go is that the focus is on the relationships and the small moments in Kathy’s life. It doesn’t focus on these looming ethical questions. The reader is gently brought into this world, and the horror and complexities of its reality settle in very slowly. I recommend this book, particularly for people interested in modern medical research ethics.