Review: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

· Hardcover: 304 pages
· Publisher: Knopf (April 5, 2005)
· Language: English
· ISBN-10: 1400043395
· ISBN-13: 978-1400043392
· Genre: sici-fi, dystopia
· Target group: adult

Synopsis (with some spoilers):

Never Let Me Go is the third book of Kazuo Ishiguro dealing with sci-fi subjects. The storyline is highly reminiscent of the thriller movie “The Island” – small wonder a new movie, based on it and starring Keira Knightley, has been shot recently.

The novel is narrated by Kathy H., a thirty-one year old carer, who reminds herself of her school years at Hailsham, spent with her best friends, Ruth and Tommy. She tells us that she recently came back into contact with Ruth, as she became Ruth’s carer after her first donation. We are bound to find the true meaning of this later.

At the beginning Hailsham seems a normal establishment. It is situated amid quiet countryside and its staff consist of caring, good guardians. Soon we find out that the students never go home and are not visited by anyone from the outside world. Then come other puzzles. Why does the Hailsham syllabus place so intense an emphasis on “creativity” of the students? Why does mysterious ‘Madame’ pick up and take away the best art? Where is situated her equally mysterious ‘gallery’? Aren’t weekly medical checks a bit too frequent ? Can it be true that the authorities are so worried about the dangers of smoking that works such as the Sherlock Holmes stories are banned from the library because of their high nicotine content? Why did one of the best teachers, the honest and open Miss Lucy, leave the school rather abruptly?

In their last years at Hailsham, the students are given classes on what was to be expected out in the real world, with special emphasis on sex and social skills. Here the truth about them slowly become clearer. It seems that everyone somehow knew it already BUT they never realized what it really meant. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy leave Hailsham and go to the Cottages where they reside under the watchful eye of an elderly man called Keffers until they are ready to start their training as carers. After that they will become donors. The relationship between the three of them becomes somewhat like a love triangle. Ruth and Tommy are dating openly but deep down Ruth knows that Kathy and Tommy would be more compatible. The friendship between both girls, while superficially tight knit, is in fact rather strained and quite toxic. Ruth is a bossy ‘know-it-all’ type who likes manipulating the others. The trio disintegrate after one explosive afternoon and Kathy doesn’t see Ruth and Tommy again until she becomes Ruth’s carer.


The Hailsham students don’t have any families because they are, in fact, clones of other people (called possibles). They can’t have children either. They were designed to be walking and living organ farms and that was the sole purpose of their rather short existence. Once they end their carers’ career and are called up to start donating, they don’t stop until they ‘complete’. In other words, they donate their organs until there is nothing left or their body can no longer sustain the operations. Those that survive to their fourth donation are treated like heroes. They’ve heard on the grapevine that love – or art, or both – will get you a deferral but nobody really knows any details of such a deal and whether it is true. The likes of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy frighten the rest of normal people. Many believe they have no souls and are simply empty beings. Is it really true?

What I liked:

The plot, while not exactly original, was captivating. Ishiguro’s careful, understated narration focuses on the way young people can make a life out of whatever is on offer. The foreground of the novel is kept busily occupied with the interactions of Kathy with her best friend Ruth and Tommy, the boy both are attracted to. Here Ishiguro sets a cat’s cradle of psychological and emotional tensions which were fascinating – he is the best at it.

 Another out-of-the-ordinary feature of this novel is the way the author deals with questions about humanity and humaneness – very difficult questions I must add. I was really fascinated and struck by the whole ethical concept of organ donation, what Kathy, Ruth and Tommy were and how they were treated by ‘normal’ human beings.

What I didn’t like:

Don’t get me wrong – Never Let Me Go is a very unique read and raises many relevant questions. Still, plenty of incredibly fascinating stuff the author left somehow untouched and I really don’t understand why. There is undoubtedly much to say about the ethics of cloning humans for the sole purpose of organ harvesting after all…

I wonder, for instance, why we were never told how all these cloning procedures were invented, organized and performed. Who was exactly chosen as a ‘possible’ (so the model for a clone) and for what reasons? There appears to be no relationship whatsoever between a clone and his/her “original” model – isn’t it rather strange? We are also not told who was responsible for the whole cloning programme- I mean who financed and supervised it. By the way who can afford this kind of medicine in a society the author depicts as no richer, indeed perhaps less rich, than ours? Finally my main problem – why couldn’t the clones, at least some of them, those the smartest or the most adventurous ones (or both), just leave, go away or even go abroad, try to blend in among normal people and avoid their sad fate? What exactly stopped them from leaving? After all the instinct for self preservation, the thirst for knowledge and the curiosity define the human race.The author took a lot of effort to present clones as human beings. As a result, though, his attention remains fixed on intimate things – the small social groupings within a school, the nuances of personal relationships – but the larger world remains a distant, blurred backdrop, and is brought slightly more into focus only at the end. A very depressing end. It’s about knowing that while you must keep calm, keeping calm won’t change a thing.

Ishiguro’s refusal to address questions such as these forces, in my opinion, his story into a pure literary limbo – the book is perhaps intelligent and well-written but still really neither here nor there.

I am also not particularly smitten with the cover…but it is easier to change than the content.

Final verdict

It is an interesting but rather depressing novel – showing the steady erosion of hope.  To tell you the truth I felt physically tired after finishing it. If you asked me whether or not I would like to read it again my answer would be a firm “no”. I would rather watch “The Island” for the second time. Call me a shallow being with no intelligence to speak of.

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19 Responses to Review: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

  1. I would definitely not call you shallow. I would say, in the face of such a book, that I would take The Island over it as well. Then again, I prefer to stay away from anything too depressing as I don't like to have to think such sad things on a regular basis (life is rough as it is). The premise of the book sounds interesting as I'm a huge fan of The Island, but at least The Island had a happy ending. I know, I know, there are so many people out there who don't care if the book doesn't end happy, but I'm not one of those people. I need a book to make me feel better, I read to escape. Who wants to escape to sadness. Doesn't mean I won't read books with death, as long as at the end of the book, everything works out for the best and I feel good about it. All that being said, I loved your review and felt you gave the book a wonderful description, good and bad points all being covered. JenIn the Closet With a Bibliophile

  2. Tracy says:

    OK, just lost the long comment I'd typed!Second (briefer) attempt:This one sounds intriguing, but grim. Not holiday reading, that's for sure.In defence of Ishiguro, to create a whole background story to answer the questions you are interested in would expand the book considerably, and really turn it into pure science fiction. I imagine the author wanted to focus purely on the human element, as you say. So he set up a world, an experiment – these are the fixed parameters (because I say so! I'm interested in only these questions) – let's see how these three characters react.

  3. anachronist says:

    Thanks Jen, I am really glad you liked it.Then again, I prefer to stay away from anything too depressing as I don't like to have to think such sad things on a regular basis (life is rough as it is). I think you hit the nail on the head here. I am also one of these readers who try to escape from ugly reality into books. This book didn't offer me any comfort zone – perhaps it was intellectually a good read but definitely not satisfying.Tracy I suppose you are right but, in my very humble opinion, if the author wanted so much to focus on the human element, he wouldn't need to add those sci-fi elements at all; his other books I enjoyed far more than this one and they were set in a normal world. Writing a good sci-fi book is not that easy after all.

  4. Tracy says:

    Of course, you have read the book, anachronist. I'm attempting to second guess as to the reasons an author would choose to go for that particular setting – and probably badly – as you know my powers of ESP aren't fantastically well-developed . Although I will read it, eventually – but at the moment I have three heavy bookclub books to still read through, so I'm looking for lighter fare in between. This one sounds like it could be a good choice for a bookclub, I may put it forward as one of my choices for the next round. We like books which provoke and encourage debate, and this one certainly sounds as though it falls into that category.

  5. Blodeuedd says:

    I, oh I just do not know. Let's make it a know, there is a movie right, will watch that and see 😉

  6. anachronist says:

    Debatable it is; heavy too and I suppose you either love it or hate it. I even read one review where a blogger stated that she loved this book because it made her feel like vomitting at the end… as you know my powers of ESP aren't fantastically well-developed Oh I never knew ;).

  7. anachronist says:

    Do watch the movie Blodeuedd maybe they will make it more sci-fi than the book; watch it and write a review!BTW we posted at almost the same time!

  8. I haven't read this one, but I keep coming up with one question. If they can clone whole humans why don't they just clone parts as needed? Was there a reason presented? I would think that the complexity of cloning a walking, talking human would be harder than a single organ. I guess I'd be in the same boat as you with this one on the questions. Maybe I'll just watch the movie. Hm…

  9. anachronist says:

    A very good questions Melissa – it only shows once again that writing a sci-fi/paranormal book world building is necessary and it can be as tricky as making the characters three-dimensional and well-rounded. I am not sure whether I would like to watch the movie.

  10. I like a happy ending too. While some people will be lambs to the slaughter because they don't know what else to do, some would run.I can't imagine anyone having a relationship with another person who will be murdered for their sake, too disturbing.

  11. anachronist says:

    The problem, The Red Witch is that the clones in this book didn't donate organs to their 'possibles'. They just donated to people who needed it, full stop. It wasn't even explained whether the possibles knew they had a clone. As you see it is not The Island where the relationship between a clone and its model/owner was solved in a much more logical way.

  12. Tracy says:

    I even read one review where a blogger stated that she loved this book because it made her feel like vomitting at the end… Okaaay – I've read books which gave me that deja-vu feeling because I've seen this 'cunning' plot a hundred times before, books which are simply boorrrring zzzzzzz, books which creeped me out too much to read any more of, too, but books which made me feel physically sick?? If a book was making me feel that bad, I'd stop PDQ and simply refuse to read it.

  13. anachronist says:

    If a book was making me feel that bad, I'd stop PDQ and simply refuse to read it.As far as I understood her post she took it as a sign that the book was able to arouse deep feelings in her…it takes all sorts to make a world.

  14. Tracy says:

    it takes all sorts to make a world. Anachronist, it certainly does!I prefer books that make me think that I'm glad the author wrote this and not did the author really feel like a better human being after writing this? Did they actually feel good about themselves? For me, revulsion has no place in reading. If the only strong feeling you get from a book is nausea, try a different genre!

  15. anachronist says:

    For me, revulsion has no place in reading. If the only strong feeling you get from a book is nausea, try a different genre!I couldn't agree more.

  16. Teddy Rose says:

    I really like 'Never Let Me Go', I read it a few years ago and still think about it. I agree it was bleak and I remember having to read something lighter as a "palate cleanser" after it.

  17. anachronist says:

    I know what you mean Teddy Rose about "palate cleanser" – I did the same thing.

  18. akhma_r says:

    Hi,i have not read this book but i saw the movie quite recently n tonnes of questions bloat while watching it.i wish to be told an answer of why arent these adults just run away?they have every-way to get out from being donors yet they rather live a scary life waiting for their time of "completion"??

  19. anachronist says:

    Good questions, akhma_r! I also wish the author explained it.

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