Never Let Me Go, or Ain’t Got No Soul

Never Let Me Go is a novel about secrets and their slow discovery. A dystopic tale of love, death, and fate, the novel’s action centers on the friendship of Ruth, Kathy, and Tommy at a unique boarding school called Hailsham during the 1950s and 1970s, where students are encouraged to artistically express themselves. From adolescense to young adulthood, they sense their difference but can’t quite explain it. Nothing more can be said about the plot without ruining the twist for potential readers. So if you like very good albeit not great writing about coming of age in a dystopic environment where science and ethics collide, then take a hold of Never Let Me Go. I have a major criticism of the psychological plausibility of Ishuguro’s story, so stop reading if you don’t want to have the climax spoiled. Hailsham’s mission is to demonstrate that clones have souls, that future carers and donors, can think and feel like the rest of us. And while it appears that Hailsham succeeds (i.e., the children produce art, write stories, play football, fall in love, etc.) the students themselves lack a defining characteristic of adolescence, namely rebelliousness and the ability to ask the basic, simple question why. The students are railroaded into fate without a struggle, and if they’re so easily railroaded, then either the Hailsham project fails to elicit the humanity of its students, or Ishiguro fails to equip them with the rudiments of adolescent psychology. I rather suspect it’s the latter.

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15 Responses to Never Let Me Go, or Ain’t Got No Soul

  1. R. T. says:

    You make an interesting point about the psychology of the children/young adults in Ishiguro’s novel; however, I am not sure that I agree with you because I think the premise requires that the specifically designed donors would need to have been pliant conformists (not rebellious), which adds to the terror of the concept since Ishiguro is not talking about cloning or donors as much as he is talking about conformity and blind allegiance to social “norms.” I am fond of the novel, and I included it once in a literature class that focused on dystopias; students were evenly split on where they ranked Ishiguro relative to Orwell, Huxley, and Atwood.

    • Kevin Neilson says:

      Hi R.T., I too am fond of the novel. It’s just that my fondness, as for most things, is laced with head scratchings and other perplexities. You know, I’d be inclined to agree with you were reproductive cloning genetic selection. So. If intelligent design by geneticists is occuring in Ishiguro’s story, it’s a carefully guarded secret. Thank you for dropping by… Cheers, Kevin

  2. Colleen says:

    Good point re: teen psychology, I think. R.T.: regardless of how well designed they are, it seems both possible and probably that some “flaws” would occur – they occur in all other forms of genetic engineering, after all. Your point, Kevin, I think in part explains why I was so disappointed by this novel; but that I correctly guessed the “twist” on the first page may have contributed to the disappointment too.

  3. R. T. says:

    I agree, Colleen, that the “twist” is quickly discernible; however, that does not–to my mind–detract from Ishiguro’s interesting development of the themes, which–I suggest again–have little to do with donations or cloning but instead concern social demands on compliant individuals.

    • Colleen says:

      I guess that’s where our disagreement lies, although disagreement is too strong a word. I thought everything about this novel was pat and obvious and the writing mediocre. I really didn’t think the author did justice to any aspect of the novel.

  4. Frisbee says:

    I very much enjoyed this novel, but then I do like dystopian science fiction. I thought Kathy was a believeable, likable character, enjoyed Ishiguro’s beautiufl style, and was absorbed in the terrible fate of the clones, horrified by the organ harvesting that was their sole purpose.

    But–then again–this is really science fiction, and Ishiguro’s real audience is for “literary” fiction. It’s too bad to genre-fy books, but Ishiguro’s other fiction is VERY different, and I’m thinking SF fans might be more interested.

    I don’t remember this book very well: I read it when it came out five, six, seven, eight years ago(?).

    • Kevin Neilson says:

      Katsilvia, welcome. I’m a big fan of dystopian fiction, especially in the hands of a capable writer. By presenting a grim yet plausible future, it magnifies the importance of the choices we make now. Cheers, Kevin

  5. Tony says:

    It’s a very powerful novel, whatever flaws one might discern. The gut-wrenching thing is the way they cling to hope, only to have it shattered. I’ve only read it once, but it affected me so much that I haven’t read it again.

    That makes sense in my head…

  6. I liked this book but it’s not my favourite Ishiguro. What I like about Ishiguro in general is his tone, the matter-of-fact almost emotionless description of things which, we come to realise, are not quite what they seem told usually by narrators who, themselves, don’t recognise that horror (or certainly don’t recognise the fullness of the horror). As I recollect I clued in pretty quickly to what it was about partly I think because only a little time before reading it I’d seen a film, The island, about a very similar subject. I’m not sure whether I would have picked it up quite so soon without have seen that. As I said, not my favourite of his – and I can’t quite pick why – but good nonetheless.

  7. jack faith says:

    just finished Romanek’s film and was curious about reading the book. Overwhelmingly well-received I see, unlike the film. I had a number of problems with the film but I’m thinking these will just manifest themselves all over again in the book. It’s a shame when it seems nearly all the unfavourable reviews come from folk who aren’t up to dealing with difficulty. So it was refreshing to find your review above. Just to add: ah, the nightmare of conformity. It doesn’t follow for me that you write on one level about your characters and then invoke a rather strangulated (self-defeating) clause that bypasses the need to deal with any kind of questioning about their fate. What kind of conformity is this? Surely the point about humanity is that conformity only makes sense when you also have some sense of its contradiction. Take Kafka for instance. This is a world after a very particular distillation. You want to examine the deep sense of a whole life, so the conceit allows you to magnify that – but, it also qualifies the whole, they become rather inferior. Now we’re onto a rather ridiculous notion of submission. It’s interesting how many reviewers find they can go along with this as though its actually a strength of his writing. Isn’t this intellectually very condescending and imaginatively more about the writer’s purism? When Kazuo says, for instance, that’s what childhood is like… well, not really. It’s very partial, and always in a way that suits his ends. Just like McEwan. It’s literature with all the contrivance of genre but with none of the grace of good genre.

  8. Hi Jack, welcome. Do let me know if your read the book. Ishuguro’s, that is. Time to traipse on over to your blog and see if you’ve got more to say about Kafka, who is a world unto himself! Cheers, Kevin

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