There’s no greater evidence of my supremely overstocked book inventory than this week’s read, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which I received as either a birthday or Christmas present something like four years ago and which subsequently languished on my shelves long enough for someone to make a movie adaptation, for that movie adaptation to appear in and leave theaters and finally end up on HBO, which is where I recorded it last week.
Of course, outside of the fact that it might be construed as rather insulting to receive and then ignore a gift for half a decade, there is something rather pleasant about being able to read a book and watch the movie in close succession. And the film adaptation of Never Let Me Go, which stars Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield (he of Spider-Man fame), was all the more enjoyable because I had only just finished the final chapter of the novel. In fact, as adaptations go, it hews incredibly closely to the novel, down to specific pieces of dialogue. No major plot points were changed, and the limited number of omissions were understandable in a story strewn with seemingly innocuous events that together form a broader portrait of a relationship between friends.
NLMG is told from the perspective of Kathy H., who attends private boarding school Hailsham with her friends Ruth and Tommy. Though it provides a robust liberal arts education—students are encouraged to create art, crafts and poetry—Hailsham is much more: The students who attend are in fact scientifically created for the express purpose of growing up to donate their organs. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are three such students, and the novel explores changes in their dynamic as they move away from Hailsham and begin their adult lives, first as carers for other organ donors and eventually as donors themselves.
Of course, what’s fantastic about NLMG is how little this bit of science fiction seems to matter. At its heart, the novel is a love story—a love triangle, if you will—whose complications simply happen to arise from and be exacerbated by a dystopian future (actually, re-imagined past: the novel takes place in the 1970s through 90s) in which people are bred for the sole purpose of organ donation. For all it really matters to the emotions at hand, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy might have been drafted soldiers destined for war, or terminally ill cancer patients expected to die as young adults, or religious extremists raised to become martyrs. What matters is that their lives are planned for them, and nowhere in those plans is there a place for true love.
At the same time, once I understood the plot—Ishiguro doesn’t actually spell out the donation thing until page 81—I couldn’t help but get lost in its implications. A world where incurable diseases are curable, just so long as you create humans whose lives you’re willing to sacrifice. A school dedicated to educating those humans. A system designed to process them. Given our current political climate, it doesn’t seem like the most realistic possibility—our respect for “life” having extended all the way back to contraception—but as one of Hailsham’s guardians (teachers) points out in the novel: “How can you ask a world that has come to regard cancer as curable, how can you ask such a world to put way that cure, to go back to the dark days?” Indeed, if test tube organ babies did exist, and if their existence could single-handedly cure cancer, I don’t know that we wouldn’t be asking ourselves the same question.
Never Let Me Go falls in naturally with its peers in what I like to call the “fucked up future” genre: books like The Handmaid’s Tale, The Road or even World War Z. But as dystopian novels go, it is a decidedly grim read, where saving many lives is pitted against saving a handful of them. If there’s any lesson to be learned from reading this novel, it’s that science has great power to affect our perception of humanity, and that being an organ donor (like, voluntarily) is probably a good call.
TITLE: Never Let Me Go
AUTHOR: Kazuo Ishiguro
PAGES: 388 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: The Remains of the Day, When We Were Orphans
SORTA LIKE: The Handmaid’s Tale meets The Giver
FIRST LINE: “My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years.”