Kazuo Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go
Posted by Meghan Hayes
This book was one of those rare occasions for me where I saw the movie before reading the book. I can only really think of one instance (The Reader) other than the Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen books that were actually written AFTER the movies if you can believe it. Anyways, this is the kind of subtle science fiction piece that I really love. It was also one of the hardest cries I ever had while reading. For context, I listened to this song the entire time I wrote this review... it's featured in the movie.
I can't really remember how far into the book they acknowledge that the main characters are all clones. I know this is supposed to be a spoiler free blog, but it's not a suspense novel so it doesn't matter. I do remember loving how they only say "clone" like once or twice and it is mentioned in passing.
This book is mainly split between Kathy, Ruth and Tommy's time as children at Hailsham, their time as teenagers at the cottages, and than as "carers" and "donors" when they are young adults. As I usually do, I will divide this review up into those three sections:
1. Childhood at Hailsham
I normally hate reading anything from the perspective of children. But my supervisor for my master's made a really interesting point when we were talking about the book and the main characters. We were talking about how cruel the children often were to one another and how cold they could be. My supervisor reminded me that these children are essentially growing up without any parenting and that this could likely explain their almost total lack of empathy.
Tommy is relentlessly bullied by the students and his closest friends don't feel sorry for him at all. They never stick up for him and they essentially blame him for bringing it upon himself.
It's also apparent in their inability to comfort each other physically... A lot of them have sex, especially in their teenage years, but they aren't intimate in any other way. In the cottage years you see Ruth copying gestures like touching Tommy's cheek or touching someone's arm. Kathy comments on how unnatural it looks and that she knows Ruth is just copying what she has seen "real" couples do on television.
I'll always remember one of the passages where one of their teachers (Miss Lucy, a regular human) is teaching them about the Second World War and concentration camps:
[…] but had somehow drifted onto talking about soldiers in Word War Two being kept in prison camps. One of the boys asked if the fences around the camps were electrified, and then someone else had said how strange it must have been, living in a place like that, where you could commit suicide any time you liked just by touching a fence.”
After saying this all the children start pretending to be electrocuted and the teacher watches in this kind of helpless horror. It's a really eery and disturbing scene.
2. Teenage Years at the Cottages
I like these scenes a lot in the movie because finally Carey Mulligan (Kathy), Kiera Knightly (Ruth) and Andrew Garfield (Tommy) take the roles. But I also really enjoyed them in the book because this is where Ruth and Tommy start their relationship, and we start to see how it is bothering Kathy. Kathy is jealous in a really depressing way. She was the only one growing up who was remotely fair to Tommy and you can tell she really loves him.
I've always been really fascinated by female-friendship plotlines that touch on the toxicity of some friendships and how cruel girls can be to one another. One of my favourite passages adapted by Alex Garland (writer of 28 days Later, and writer/director of Ex Machina) was the scene where Ruth confronts Kathy about her feelings for Tommy. Kathy is sitting in her room when Ruth comes in and starts this big explanation about her and Tommy's relationship.
Ruth goes on to say she thinks it's normal for Kathy to have feelings for Tommy:
he really, really likes you, he think's you're really great. But he doesn't see you like, you know, a proper girlfriend."
It's not a particularly striking passage in the book, but Kiera Knightly's delivery in the movie is so well done. I've had plenty of toxic friendships, and this scene always strikes a chord with me. You know that Ruth really cares about Kathy, but at the same time, she wants to hurt Kathy in this moment. Kathy is the passive friend, and Ruth always wants to be in control.
This is also a great section because they talk more about their "possibles" - i.e. the people they were cloned from. The group takes a trip into town to check out a possible of Ruth. When they realize the woman doesn't look like Ruth at all, Ruth breaks down and tells them who they're really modelled after:
We all know it. We're modelled from trash. Junkies, prostitutes, winos, tramps [...] We know it, so we might as well just say it. If you want to look for possibles, if you want to do it properly, then you look in the gutter. You look in rubbish bins. Look down the toilet, that's where you'll find where we all came from."
Again, this is another really powerful part in the film. If this review does anything I hope it encourages you to at least watch the movie.
This is also the section where they hear a rumour that if you can prove you are in love, you will get a few more years to spend together before you have to start your donations. God, I could cry already.
3. Donors and Carers
So this is the section where I just start to cry non-stop. It is so, so heartbreaking. This is where Ruth and Tommy have already started to undergo their "donations" and some pretty invasive surgeries. Kathy is a carer, so she spends her time visiting fellow clones who are recovering from surgery. This is also where Ruth tells Kathy and Tommy she wants them to try and prove they are in love and get more time together. This is where Ruth is completely redeemed and you totally sympathize with her. Not only was she jealous of their relationship with one another, she was terrified of being alone. I'd dig through cement with my bare hands if it meant I didn't have to sleep a single night by myself, so I can kind of understand why Ruth tried to "sabotage" them.
When Kathy and Tommy finally meet with their old schoolmaster to try and prove their love for one another, Ishiguro really gets into the idea of cloning for organ harvesting. One of my favourite passages is when the headmistress acknowledges that what's happening to the clones is horrendous, but that the world will never go back to how things used to be:
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 your 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.”
This book had me feeling like 30 different emotions at all times. This is especially true when the conversation with the headmistress ends... when she tells them the rumours aren't true:
She reached out her hand, all the while staring into my face, and placed it on my cheek. I could feel a trembling go all through her body, but she kept her hand where it was, and I could see again tears appearing in her eyes. 'You poor creatures,' she repeated, almost in a whisper. Then she turned and went back into her house.
God, this gives me shivers whenever I read it. It is so disturbing and devastating because not only will Tommy and Kathy not get any time together, but I think the headmistress doesn't believe they actually have any feelings / emotions. She calls them CREATURES. Deep down she doesn't think these two people she watched grow up have souls, and that they cannot experience love. She's also afraid to ever touch one of them.
And now to discuss my favourite part of the book and movie. When I watched the movie I was crying so hard at this scene that I thought my parents were going to come downstairs to check on me. I was hyperventilating. I also sobbed like a baby reading it in the book, but I was already prepared, so the effect wasn't as strong.
Anyways, that's why I was still in the car, wondering whether to move it a little further up the hill, when I heard the first scream. [...] The moon wasn't quite full, but it was bright enough, and I could make out in the mid-distance, near where the field began to fall away, Tommy's figure, raging, shouting, flinging his fists and kicking out."
In a way I am disappointed with this review because the quotations I chose aren't necessarily striking, or ones that would convince me to pick up this book. But they are all from incredibly emotionally-charged scenes that Ishiguro is so talented in crafting. This book breaks your heart. I feel like I won't be able to get up off my couch after just thinking about it.
Say what you will about Andrew Garfield, but this is one of the most powerful scenes I've seen in a movie, and he does an amazing job with it.
I'm grateful for Alex Garland's fantastic screenplay because without this movie I probably never would have heard of this book, or ever bought it. I also had such a great experience reading it because I got to talk a lot about it with my supervisor. She recommended I read Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, which I'm really looking forward to. Brace yourself for the review, hopefully it doesn't leave me as emotionally distraught as I'm feeling right now.