When I first started reading this book after borrowing it from the library, I did a double-take. I had this book down as being recommended by one of my favourite science fiction blogs, yet the book's description mentioned nothing that made it sound like science fiction! So I had to go back and read the article that mentions this book before I realized what was going on (the Library of Congress cataloguing information also gives it away). Immediately I was impressed by Kazuo Ishiguro. He doesn't keep the SF component of the book (cloning) secret for long, but the way it opens, you wouldn't think it's science fiction. Even better, the premise—that the main character and her friends are clones grown for organ donation—is the only science fiction component of the entire book. Beyond that, it's just another human interest story--and a fairly beautiful one at that.
I've filed this book under alternate-history because, although Ishiguro never gives us a date, the technology is conspicuously late-twentieth-century (cassette tapes and walkmans). Since, as far as I know, our late twentieth century society never started growing clones for organ donations, I'm assuming this is alternate history. It doesn't matter all that much, however. Ishiguro doesn't bother too much with anything outside the scope of the characters' lives, nor does he go into any detail about the nature of the cloning process itself. That's because, as I'm going to argue, the book isn't really about cloning at all.
There's a fair amount of suspense in the book, especially because I didn't know where Ishiguro was trying to take his story about cloning. At first all we learn about is the narrator's childhood at Hailsham, a boarding school where the clones were educated and brought up for the first sixteen years of their lives. We experience the growing pains familiar to natural-born children: the cliques, the fights, the awkward budding romances, the discovery of sex.
In these respects, Never Let Me Go is like any coming-of-age story. Kath H. talks about growing up among the boys and girls at Hailsham, living in the shadow of clique-leader Ruth and slowly becoming friends with hot-headed Tommy. I enjoyed the episodes at Hailsham in their own right, for they make many good points about growing up in general, not just about cloning. Of course, that's all part of Ishiguro's intended theme: the clones are us, just with a different career path.
The story really takes off once the main characters leave Hailsham and reside temporarily at "the Cottages." Kathy H. becomes sexually active, but aside from physical relationships, she finds it hard to become close to anyone. Her relationship with Ruth is always tumultuous at best—whereas Kathy is self-assured, Ruth is insecure and constantly trying to fit herself into social strata. Likewise, she can never quite get as close to Tommy as we know she should be.
Part of the problem is a sense of sinister ephemerality to their time at the Cottages. They all know that eventually they'll have to leave, train to become carers, and one day become donors themselves. Yet the main characters, who are latently aware of that as children and eventually come to terms with this as adults, never do escape their gilded cages. They don't get a "deferral," as it's called in the book; they all donate until they "complete."
This may seem nihilistic. Shouldn't clones go free?! It isn't though, because if one accepts that reasoning, then it means our lives are nihilistic too. After all, we all die eventually. How are our lives any different from the slightly more restricted lives of the clones? We just have a greater illusion of freedom, of self-control—and suddenly that makes us think we're different.
Although Ishiguro raises the big moral questions, he never seems to try to solve them in any way; the clones just go on accepting life as it is. Some may view this as a moral cop-out--what's the point of writing about cloning if one isn't going to take a stand on the issue? But it's much deeper than that. The clones are just a setting for a tale about all humanity, cloned and "natural." When Ishiguro asks, "Do the clones have souls?" he's really asking, "Do we have souls?"
The only thing that really disappointed me about Never Let Me Go was the narrator's style. It was too conversational, too rambling for my tastes. Her tone made it hard for me to connect with the story at times. Narrator aside, Never Let Me Go is a wonderful book with richly emotional moments interspersed with the occasional dull one. It's the perfect sort of book for a rainy day, to read beside the fireplace or by candlelight. And yeah, it's got clones in it, but it's not about clones, not really. So I'd recommend to my friends, even if they aren't science fiction fanatics like me. Because it's good.