Renowned author Emilie Buchwald once said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” In our series Book Reports for Adults, we hope to make up for all those parents who turned on Seinfeld instead.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

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Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ichiguro

Why You Should Read Never Let Me Go: Did you like The Island? Did you like Four Weddings and a Funeral? Did you ever wonder what they would be like if they were the same movie? But about teenagers? And not funny? And a book?

Book Size: Slim and lean. Good for beach reading. There’s even a beach in it. A freezing beach of loneliness and loss, but still.

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The Book Report, and What I Learned:

The Plot, Nearly Spoiler-Free:

The kids at Hailsham have always known that they were different.

It’s not just that they go to an exclusive boarding school that makes every other kid they meet jealous. It’s not just that their art projects are collected by a mysterious woman and taken away to a shadowy gallery never to be seen again. It’s not just that they’re checked over carefully by a doctor once a week and lectured constantly about protecting their health. It’s not just that visitors to their school seem to cringe away from them or look at them with disgust. It’s not just that they have no parents.

It’s that they have no future.

The children at Hailsham, we quickly learn, are clones, bred in test tubes and raised in a secluded facility that is the human equivalent of an organic free-range farm. Unlike most other clone children, those at Hailsham have been educated, cared for, and given a childhood full of football games, friendship, and teen romance – an experiment conducted by a small group of people who I’d call hippies if they weren’t so upper crust and English to prove that clones have souls.

Regardless, the kids at Hailsham know, in the end, their fate will be the same as that of any other clone in this alternate version of 1990’s England: when they reach adulthood, they will be called on to “donate” their vital organs to non-clones in need.

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Some of them won’t make it through their first donation. Some might survive as many as three. In the end, though, before they reach their mid-thirties, every single one of them will… well, the word that they use for it is complete.

That’s the most peculiar part of the whole system, really: the euphemisms. Every kid in Hailsham past kindergarten knows what the future holds, and yet none of them object or fight. They talk cheerfully about donor children and recovery centers and completing on a first or second or fourth donation the way other children might talk about banks and post offices: something boring and adult in the future that’s just a part of the way the world works.

It is, after all, the world that they were born into. It’s all they’ve ever known.

At the same time, though, there’s only so much rationalizing a person can do…

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As the clone children grow up, their fear of dying starts to twist and taint their lives in all sorts of odd ways. They turn on one another, picking petty fights and seizing petty revenge. They throw themselves into art and worship creativity, seeing it as the ultimate way to prove their humanity. And they chase after rumors: stories get passed from kid to kid, some scary, some wonderful, and one almost too good to be true…

Rumor has it, you see, that if two clone children fall in love —really, truly in love, with no faking possible — then they can apply to have their donations put off a few years so they can have time to be together before the end.

It makes perfect sense: surely human beings, with those fully human souls they keep going on about, must have great respect for love. Obviously.

Our story follows three clone children — Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth — as they grow to adulthood, move into the donation program, and chase the rumor that true love might save them before it’s too late…

 

The Characters:

Ruth, the bold one. A popular, pretty girl with a love of adventure and a sharp sense of humor, Ruth is the ringleader of this childhood trio and Tommy’s long-term girlfriend. Brave and fun but sometimes mean and manipulative, her biggest fear is that she’ll be left alone when the end comes when the end comes. It’s a fear that compels her to drag people as close to her as she can, which, of course, often winds up driving them away instead.

Tommy, the angry one. As a child, Tommy was cursed, even for a clone: he had a terrible temper and no skill at all at art. As a result, he was bullied constantly by his art-obsessed fellow clone kids and then bullied even more when they decided his tantrums were funny. He grows up to be a very quiet, self-effacing teenager who will put up with anything, but you can tell sometimes that anger is still there, bubbling under the surface.

Kathy, the sweet one. Kathy is our narrator, a thoughtful and curious girl who harbors a long-term crush on Tommy. Besides a fear of the spotlight, her defining trait is the empathy and compassion she feels for others: bullied kids like Tommy, her teachers and guardians trapped in their impossible positions, even the people who will one day inherit her body. It’s a trait that gives her purpose and meaning, but also one that leads her to suffer any number of indignities.

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The Themes and Ideas:

The beach of lost things. There’s a running joke among Hailsham kids about Norfolk: Because one of their teachers refers to it as a “lost corner of England,” they decide it must be like the lost and found box in the office — a place where everything they’ve lost will eventually turn up again, if only they search long enough.

Never Let Me Go is about a lot of things, but ultimately, it’s about loss: about how we view it in childhood and the way that view evolves as we grow up. As these kids grow up, Norfolk —and one particular beach in Norfolk that becomes their secret shared spot — begins to take on immense mystical significance in their lives. The more they lose, the more they fantasize they might trip over the bits of their broken lives someday, lying like forgotten candy wrappers on their special beach.

Of course, they have no such luck. Pieces of clone kids are far more expensive than candy wrappers. No one would leave one just lying around.
 
Brainwashing and normalcy. In this alternate version of England, the donation program is just a part of life. It’s not a secret. The clones aren’t even locked up. Adult clones wander the country freely and live in small groups supervised by no one but the grumpy old man who drops off the weekly groceries. They sit through lectures on manners from their guardians and get driver’s licenses and eat in restaurants and mess around in thrift shops with their friends — and then, when the card comes for them in the mail, they turn up cheerfully in their assigned hospitals, ready to be taken apart.

It’s one of the creepiest things I’ve ever read.

Because, look, you could call it brainwashing. It is brainwashing, to some extent – the teachers at Hailsham, for all their crunchy theories on clone humanity, still spend a lot of time drilling respect for authority and a sense of their vital importance to the health industry into their pupils to make sure the kids grow up enthusiastic and ready to do their bit for Queen and country – but even so, in the end, what leads these kids compliantly toward their deaths isn’t brainwashing so much as the overwhelming, unshakeable power of normality.

The clones go to their deaths because it’s what’s expected of them. It’s what clone children have always done. It’s what their purpose is. Everyone knows this, clone and non-clone alike. The clones don’t stay put because they’ll be hunted down if they run away. They stay put because running away is just not what one does (pip pip, crumpet crumpet, etc.)

It’s a book that really makes you scared for what other horrors people might willingly walk into just because it’s the done thing, and makes you think a lot harder about what people throughout history have already have walked into for that same reason.
 
Love and death. Despite the wonderful creepiness of its premise, I’m going to be the first one to admit that just like most stories that involve exploiting clones for, really, any reason, Never Let Me Go makes no economic sense. Seriously. The math is worse than J.K. Rowling math, and that’s really saying something.

That’s okay, though, because the book isn’t really about that (one reason I’m hesitant to call it sci-fi, even though I realize what a cardinal sin it is to exclude a work of genre fiction from its genre just because it’s good). The premise is, ultimately, just a vehicle to get us thinking about these kids, their choices, and how their lives turn out.

Like The Road, it’s really the story of all of us, just with the speed turned up 3x so the overarching patterns show up more clearly.

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This fact is really evident when the kids start talking about the rumor that’s been going around: the one where two clones who are truly, deeply in love get to put off death for a few years so that they can have all the time they need to be together.

I don’t want to spoil anything, but really, do I have to? We’re all human beings. The minute we hear that promise, we all get a sinking feeling in our stomachs, right? Because we know: that’s just not how it works. That’s not how any of this works.

I’m trying really hard not to go into a song from Hamilton here, but death doesn’t discriminate (between the sinners and the saints, it takes and it takes and it okay I’ll stop). People in love get cut down just like the rest of us—too soon, long before they’ve had enough time, even if they live to be a hundred years old.

Still: in Never Let Me Go, we can’t help getting our hopes up one last time nonetheless. Because we love these kids so much by the end of the book, all three of them, we can’t help reading hoping maybe, just this once, the rules wont apply. Maybe, just this one time, things will turn out differently than they always do.

It’s like watching the first season of Game of Thrones over and over again hoping this time, Ned Stark will somehow just decide to stay in Winterfell.

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TL;DR

It’s hard out there for a clone, but really, it’s hard out there for everyone.
 

Part to Quote So People Will Think You’ve Read It:

“That was the only time, as I stood there, looking at that strange rubbish, feeling the wind coming across those empty fields, that I started to imagine just a little fantasy thing, because this was Norfolk after all, and it was only a couple of weeks since I’d lost him. I was thinking about the rubbish, the flapping plastic in the branches, the shore-line of odd stuff caught along the fencing, and I half-closed my eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up, and I was now standing here in front of it, and if I waited long enough, a tiny figure would appear on the horizon across the field, and gradually get larger until I’d see it was Tommy, and he’d wave, maybe even call. The fantasy never got beyond that –I didn’t let it– and though the tears rolled down my face, I wasn’t sobbing or out of control. I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be.”

 

Side Effects of Reading Never Let Me Go May Include:

Loss of organs, loss of humanity, and a redoubled ability to appreciate the importance of loss.
 

Further Reading:

If you liked…
 
…nominal sci-fi that is much, much better than the premise makes it sound, try Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Yes, I know the movie was awful, but the book is actually a very interesting exploration of what it means to love someone, and what it means to know yourself. Plus, it will teach you how to play communist Monopoly, which is more than you can say for Crime and Punishment.
 
…exploring death from a teenager’s perspective, try Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. Like Never Let Me Go, it deals primarily with grief and, um, letting go, working mostly through imagery and metaphor and a pretty bodacious image of Heaven I really hope is right. Both books do these incredible, heartbreaking things with the struggles of teenagers to understand the complexities of a harsh world through the lens of their limited knowledge and experience.
 
…improbable fiction built around emotional resonance rather than logic, try Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove. A series of short stories full of magical realism and impossible situations, the book uses all sorts of tropes from fantasy and science fiction to explore human emotions so recognizable that they’ll make you cry.

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header image (and most other images) courtesy of Kate Miller/The Folio Society