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The strange people from a strange school
Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro
Member Name: JOHNDMR
Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro
Advantages: Interesting, unusual and thought-provoking story
Disadvantages: Ultimately rather disappointing
Published in 2005 and more recently filmed, 'Never Let Me Go' takes its title from a song by Judy Bridgewater, on a tape 'Songs After Dark', much-loved by the main character. (Before you go googling to find out more about her, Judy Bridgewater is a totally fictitious name.) The latter character is Kathy, one of three close friends who attended Hailsham School in the heart of Sussex, the others being Ruth and Tommy.
At the start of the book, Kathy is 31 years old, and has been a carer for eleven years. It is sometime in the 1990s, and she tells the story of how it was at their school. They seem to have been neither particularly happy or unhappy, but in a strange way placidly resigned to what is coming to them. Tommy is bullied by the others, so Kathy takes him under her wing and makes life more tolerable for him - but it is almost as if he would have coped adequately even if she had never appeared and taken on the role of his protector. For before long, we have the feeling that an air of menace hangs over them. The institution is not exactly a boarding school, nor an orphanage, but something vaguely in between. There are no teachers, but guardians, particularly the kindly but rather odd Miss Lucy and Madame. They have a rather bizarre relationship with their young charges, who are encouraged to produce art and poetry, but otherwise there seems to be a strange absence of teaching life skills. Four times a year there is an 'exchange' at school, a kind of bring-and-buy affair at which they 'sell' their work for tokens which they can use to 'buy' items brought into the school.
The menace, or at any rate mystery, deepens about a third of the way through, when Miss Lucy tells them one day after some hesitation that they are 'special'. They have to keep themselves well and very healthy inside. For example, they are not allowed to smoke. She did once but stopped, , and that for all of them , 'it's much, much worse to smoke than it ever was for me'.
By the way, Kathy does not work in a conventional care home for the sick or the elderly. Instead she looks after 'donors', who provide vital organs for others. After she has reminisced on these strange days at Hailsham, the story moves on to their early adult lives, when they have left and gone into the great outside world, but still remained in touch.
Not only have all three remained close, but there is a certain amount of physical relations between them. These sexual encounters are related in a curiously unerotic way, as if they are not merely 'doing it' with each other out of lust or passion, but more as they consider that they are only properly developed, 'useful' persons if they lose their virginity and it is something which they thus have a duty to do. In other words, the sex scenes probably won't shock your maiden great-aunt or the local vicar's wife. (In case you think I'm dealing with stereotypes, I do recall a local 'Mrs Rev' being recommended a perfectly anodyne aga-saga type of novel some years ago by my mother, but closing it in disgust after two of the characters indulged in a bit of tastefully-narrated bedroom business. And I did once have some maiden great-aunts).
This gets us to the stage where I find it difficult, almost impossible, to say more about the plot without giving everything away. I've said a little more about the story than the blurb on the back, but not much. On one level, it is a story of personal relationships, but involvement without love or even much happiness. On another, there is a faint whiff of science fiction in the style of John Wyndham, or even of George Orwell's '1984', with ordinary human beings finding themselves in an extraordinary situation, a terrible new world in which they have no control over their destinies yet do not seem particularly concerned.
I have to say I found the book ultimately rather disappointing. For me it started well, with the anticipation of something uniquely strange if not utterly horrible. The story trundles on, and while things do happen, it all seems to be narrated by Kathy in the same deadpan matter-of-fact style. It's a medium-length story, around 280pp in paperback, and I read through the end, waiting for the drama to come, but instead there seemed something curiously flat when I was expecting a gripping climax to the story.
There is no shortage of reviews elsewhere online (including this very site), with other readers divided down the middle. Some cannot speak of it highly enough, others have been equally dismissive. It is well written, but I found it difficult to feel much for any of the characters. For example Kathy is undoubtedly a kindly, likeable soul, yet I was left unable to feel any great sympathy for her. It was that kind of story.
I can only say in conclusion that it's not a bad book. It's certainly thought-provoking, I don't regret having read it, and I would recommend it to other people - with some reservations. But it never quite got into top gear for me.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]
Summary: A tale of characters and a school unlike any other