Monday, October 10, 2011

She Reads Guest Post: Book Club Blogger Melissa Hambrick onNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I don’t know how it is where you are, but here in Tennessee we are just on the fringes between summer and fall. The days are warm and pleasant, and in the evenings it is time to slip on a jacket. Just perfect for our book club to gather on the screened porch and feel the soft early fall air, sit with our feet tucked beneath us and talk books.

This month’s book was one of those books—you either loved it or you hated it. It was a little slow to get into, and the story was very internal. But the prose was beautiful and the concept was thought-provoking. And being one of those books—we had quite a lengthy and involved discussion. Those are always the books that get us going!

Never Let Me Go is a dystopian novel by Japanese author Kazuo Ishiguro, who also wrote The Remains of the Day. It released in 2005 and was incredibly well received—in fact TIME magazine named it the best novel of the year—and it was made into a film (starring everyone’s favorite pirate girl Kiera Knightley) in 2010. We were going to watch the movie as well, but since Redbox only has new know sometimes you don’t realize how much you miss a good old corner video store.

Although this novel fits into the science fiction genre because of its plot, the setting is actually quite pastoral, taking place in East Sussex, England. Hailsham is a boarding school there, and as we come to realize, its students are quite unusual: they are clones.

At some point in what we understand to be recent history, it has become permissible and nearly an industry unto itself to breed human clones. These clones are raised separately from natural humans by Guardians (teachers), and are raised to an age (around 18) when they either become Donors, who may donate various organs potentially more than four times, or become Carers, who literally care for these donors during the process. Carers will also eventually become donors themselves. Once they donate as many times as possible, they die, which is referred to as Completion.

Ishiguro’s novel takes us into the mind of Kathy, a clone who has been a Carer for 12 years—a remarkable span of time for this duty. Written entirely from her perspective, it jumps about a bit, just as it would if she were talking with you and telling you the story. To me, it was like a fictional memoir—very personal, internal, and with many assumptions about other characters which came only from her perspective. Although she refers to hear early childhood occasionally, she primarily narrates her teenage years through to her time as a Carer, which takes the reader into a lot of complex emotions and relationships with her fellow students as they are educated at Hailsham, through a strange existence surrounded by questions. The students themselves fill in a lot of blanks with their imaginations, creating rumors that are accepted as fact because they’ve been passed about for so long.

A great deal of time is spent on the art they are encouraged to create—paintings, sketches, poetry. They don’t completely know why, but to them it is a great honor to have your work chosen by one of the Guardians for The Gallery. And, they don’t really know what The Gallery is either—they just know they want to have their work in it. Ultimately we find out that The Gallery is a way for the Guardians to try and convince others that these clones do, in fact, have souls. Think about that—what would it mean if you had to create art, in its most commonly accepted forms, to prove that you had a soul, as if it is somehow a reflection of your being?

Caring, Donation, Completion—they are all simply what these students have been created for, and they seem to accept their fate, perhaps the way many oppressed cultures still do today. It isn’t only history; as Ishiguro writes, unfortunately oppression is still part of our future. We thought of women in male dominated societies, where tradition or religion keep them in submissive roles. Escape is not really a concept, although they dream of having their destiny deferred so that they can do things like be in love, or work in an office. Not so far off from some headlines you may have read recently? It reminded me of A Dream Deferred, a poem by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes (see below). Although they are kept away from society, told they are created for one purpose alone and for the most part, accept that purpose—perhaps it is their dreams, not their art, that reveal them as fully and deeply part of the human experience.

There are moments in which I connected with the characters in Never Let Me Go, thinking of what it is like to be a parent. We do our best to give our children purpose, to teach them—but we, like the Guardians, sometimes only show them part of the world. We skew their vision with our own, and sometimes we keep the truth from them for their own good. Yet we see ourselves in them as well. And like the students, we are created as parents to give ourselves away to our children. We give them little bits of ourselves—our love, our hearts, our passions, perhaps sometimes our frustrations, or even our paychecks. And we know—we accept—that this is our duty, until completion. Sometimes the arrival of our children defers our dreams; other times, our children are the fulfillment of them.

I have a feeling that this male, Japanese author probably didn’t have this in mind when he wrote it. But then again, I maintain that we all find bits and pieces to relate to in literature, and find things that are deeply personal and meaningful and that reflect the human journey, no matter what the story. You might think dystopian science fiction isn’t for you, but you might need to think again—because you never know what will move you.

A Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?


Patti Hill said...

Melissa: What a wonderful review! I've added Never Let Me Go to my leaning tower of must-reads. Thanks for guest posting.

Anonymous said...

Melissa, great review! I've also added Never Let Me Go to the books to be read next year by our book club. It sounds fascination, and should generate some good discussion.

Megan Sayer said...

Awesome! Thank you so much for this...I came across this book in a book shop the other day and got really engrossed in the first few pages and then...FORGOT THE TITLE!

No, I didn't have a pen with me, I had two boisterous little boys instead. I remembered the act of looking only a few days ago and thought "gee, I really need to figure out what that book was called and check out some reviews". And here is one, delivered right to my in-box. Wow. What more could I ask for? Thanks Melissa! : )

Kathleen Popa said...

Wonderful review, Melissa. And a favorite poem. Thank you for both.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, ladies. I have read this book twice now, and will most likely read it again down the road. It isn't a 'page-turner' in the truest sense of the word, but it keeps you thinking. I just love that kind of book.