Never Let Me Go: Book Review
Never Let Me Go, written by Kazuo Ishiguro and published in 1992, is one of the greatest alternative history novels ever written. It’s the only alternative history novel ever shortlisted for the Booker Prize and it won many other literary awards.
Never Let Me Go: Title
The title is an allusion to a music album entitled Never Let Me Go by a fictional singer, Judy Bridgewater. The novel’s protagonist loves the album, and her listening to it is a motif that recurs throughout the novel. Using a defining motif in the title is a classic title archetype.
(For more on titles, see How to Choose a Title For Your Novel)
Never Let Me Go: Logline
Three friends, brought up understanding that they will donate their organs and die at a young age, try to find some meaning in their brief lives.
(For more on loglines see The Killogator Logline Formula)
Never Let Me Go: Plot Summary
Warning: My plot summaries contain spoilers. Major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
It’s the late 1990s, in England. Kathy, a carer who looks after ‘donors’ who, it seems, do not survive their donations, reminisces about her time at Hailsham, a boarding school.
Kathy’s two best friends at Hailsham are Ruth and Tommy. Kathy recounts several events from their schooldays, which seem idyllic – learning and playing like any boarding-school children. However, throughout their time at Hailsham, the children know they’re not normal and will eventually become ‘donors’.
A headmistress, known as ‘Miss Emily’, runs the school. The teachers, known as guardians, teach a normal curriculum but with an emphasis on art and keeping healthy. The students exhibit their art, and a woman known as ‘Madame’ takes away the best pieces.
One guardian becomes upset at the students’ vague understanding of their fate. She says the school has brought them up aware of ‘donations’, but without really comprehending the implications. She attempts to explain, but the children still don’t really understand. The guardian leaves the school shortly afterwards.
When they’re sixteen, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy go to a half-way-house called ‘The Cottages’.
Ruth and Tommy started a romantic relationship during their last year at the school and continue it at the Cottages, but Kathy never forms a long-term relationship with anyone.
Two of the older students tell Ruth that they saw a woman who could be her ‘original’ working in an office (thus confirming that the ‘donors’ are clones). They all decide to investigate. During the trip, the two older students say that they’ve heard a rumour that couples from Hailsham can have their donations deferred if they can prove they’re genuinely in a romantic relationship. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy have never heard this rumour.
Tommy and Kathy go off together and find a copy of Kathy’s favourite music tape, which she last had at Hailsham. Tommy also tells Kathy that he suspects rumours about deferments are true and that he believes that Madame uses the art collection to decide if people can have deferments.
Back at the Cottages, Ruth becomes jealous of Tommy and Kathy’s close friendship and starts antagonising Kathy. Hurt by Ruth’s behaviour, Kathy applies to become a carer and moves away from the Cottages.
Kathy becomes a carer and doesn’t see either Ruth or Tommy for many years. During the intervening period, Hailsham closes.
When she hears that Ruth’s donations have started, and that her health is deteriorating fast, Kathy becomes her carer. Some donors manage up to four donations, but Ruth is not strong enough for that, and both Ruth and Kathy suspect Ruth’s second donation will lead to her death.
Ruth wants to meet up with Tommy, who’s in a different donor centre. Kathy arranges a car trip. At first, Kathy and Tommy gang up on Ruth, remembering the thoughtless things she’s done to them both. Ruth, though, is regretful and tells Kathy and Tommy they should get together for whatever time they have left. Also, she has discovered where Madame lives. It’s too late for her, but she urges Kathy and Tommy to ask Madame for one of the rumoured deferrals…
Soon after, [blackout]Ruth makes her second donation and dies. Kathy becomes Tommy’s carer and they become romantically involved. Following Ruth’s wishes, they track Madame down and ask for a deferral.[/blackout]
They discover [blackout]that Madame lives with Miss Emily. The two women tell Kathy and Tommy that there is no such thing as a deferral – the rumour was just wishful thinking by the donors.[/blackout]
In reality, [blackout]Hailsham was part of a failed attempt to show that the donors were being abused. Madame exhibited the gallery of artwork around the country, trying to convince the public that donors were as human as everyone else.[/blackout]
Madame and Miss Emily [blackout] both say they’re sorry, but there’s nothing they can do. Kathy seems to accept this, but Tommy is horrified.[/blackout]
Tommy [blackout]asks Kathy not to be his carer for his final donation as he doesn’t want her to see him die. They part, with Kathy knowing her own donations and death are imminent.[/blackout]
(For more on summarising stories, see How to Write a Novel Synopsis)
Never Let Me Go: Analysis
Warning: inevitably my analysis contains spoilers.
The Alternate History of Never Let Me Go
Never let Me Go is not an alternative history novel in the way most of the novels I review are. There’s no specifically stated point of departure, but it would seem that in the 1950s scientists perfected human cloning and the public waved away ethical concerns. In the 1970s, the small group that ran Hailsham tried to raise the ethical issues but were unsuccessful. Apart from that, the world doesn’t seem to have changed.
This lack of consequences makes the world of Never Let Me Go more of a fantasy world than an alternate history (see What is Alternative History?)
Never let Me Go is not a fast-paced or plot-driven novel. However, Ishiguro uses hinting of problems to come and mild cliffhangers to keep the story interesting and page-turning – it’s not a slow read.
More Questions than Answers
There is no proper explanation for many points.
- Why are the children brought up normally?
- Although ‘Madame’ explains this at the end to an extent. Hailsham was part of a failed campaign to show that the donors were fully human and so deserved human rights. Many other donors were raised in inhumane conditions.
- Why did the guardians take part in such a cruel system?
- Presumably, the guardians thought they were helping the human rights campaign or making the donors’ lives less awful.
- What happened to ethics and human rights?
- Ishiguro hand-waves this. Supposedly, society decided the medical benefits were more important than the human rights abuses.
- That the church, in particular, would go along with this seems inconceivable.
- Why do the donors accept their fate so passively?
- See discussion below.
- Does the fact that the donors will die mean their lives are pointless?
The lack of explanation makes you think about the issues, and that’s the point. The thing is, Never Let Me Go isn’t really about rational stuff. It’s not about making perfect sense in the real world. In the end, it’s a gigantic extended metaphor.
The children’s lives are a metaphor for all human life. We all know we’re going to die, but still we go through our lives either not thinking about it, telling ourselves stories about how we can avoid it, or in flat out denial.
When mortality forces us to recognise death, such as when a loved one dies, we react with horror, but swiftly move on, cloaking the unpleasantness with euphemism (“passed away”, for example).
Kathy narrates the entire novel in the past tense. She’s an unreliable narrator because of her own lack of awareness of the horror of the story. When she talks about the clones’ sad lives in a matter of fact, accepting way, it provokes an emotional response in the reader.
Throughout the story, Kathy and the others seem to just accept their fate. Apart from attempting to seek a ‘deferral’, they don’t try to escape, rebel or protest. They don’t even consider suicide. Ruth is the only one who has any thoughts of doing anything other than becoming a carer and then a donor. She dreams of working in an office like a normal person, although even she realises it’s just a fantasy.
The ‘out of universe’ reason no one tries to run away is that the novel is, as explained above, a metaphor for human life. There’s no ‘running away’ from the fact that we’re all going to die one day. Ask yourself why you accept your fate and you understand why the characters do the same. Where is there to run to?
However, there’s no canonical ‘in universe’ explanation for why the donors accept their fate so passively. However, it’s hinted that they’re tracked and monitored, e.g. they use tags to sign in at the cottages. And of course there may be nowhere to run to, as the same system is likely to be in place anywhere else they could go to.
Another possibility is that society regards the donors as pariahs outside normal society. It may be impossible for donors to get a normal job or housing, legally or due to prejudice. It’s suggested in several scenes in the book that people are scared of and repulsed by the donors. That leaves them with very few options.
Ishiguro himself has said that the donors simply don’t have any concept of ‘running away’ even being a possibility. He’s also said that the entire question of ‘Why don’t they run away?’ only comes up with western audiences.
In the end, the ‘in universe’ explanations are not fully explored, as the author’s purpose is metaphorical.
Reality: Human Cloning
Clones have existed throughout history as twins are genetically identical, naturally occurring clones. However, the first artificially cloned animals were born in the 1990s, raising the possibility of artificial human cloning in the future. The ethical issues around the sanctity of life and human rights quickly led to bans on reproductive human cloning worldwide. As reproductive human cloning is illegal, and the use of clones as a supply of organs for transplantation is utterly unethical and against any conception of human rights, ‘harvesting’ of clones is unlikely ever to take place. However, scientists are researching therapeutic cloning of human cells, and lab-grown organs are a possibility for future medicine.
The movie The Island, starring Scarlett Johansson and Ewan McGregor, has the same basic premise as Never Let Me Go, but takes it in a very different, action-orientated-thriller, direction.
In Never let Me Go the protagonists are aware of their fate and, largely, accept it, while in The Island the clones are in what amounts to a prison and the prison authorities tell them that the world outside is a wasteland. Discovering the truth about what’s really happening, the protagonists attempt to escape. The Hollywood approach of The Island is in stark contrast to the contemplative nature of Never Let Me Go.
Never Let Me Go: My Verdict
Probably the best written alternative history novel ever. Hauntingly beautiful.
Never Let Me Go: The Movie
An adaptation of Never Let Me Go, staring Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, was released in 2010. It’s a good adaptation, sticking closely to the plot of the novel. It’s worth watching, but to me it’s nowhere near as good as the book.
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