I read this book on the recommendation of a friend who said it had made her cry. It is a work of speculative fiction and the story is set in an imagined England in the 1990s. It is narrated by Kath, who is a carer. The story is based on the concept of eugenics and how some members of society are created and then used by others for their own purposes. Gradually we learn that Kath and her friends were cloned and then raised in institutions for the sole purpose of supplying the demand for organ donation. Kath’s life is planned out for her, first she is given an education, then they begin their training to be carers and spend several years caring for others who have already begun “donating” their vital organs. After a period of time, they themselves begin donating, until they eventually “complete”, which is to say, die.
I loved the book and read it in four days. I loved the way the story was told in flashback over approximately 25 years which left a strong sense of the passage of time and of “what might have been” in a different society. I loved the carefully crafted and tightly written prose which conveyed the disturbing ideas in the story very precisely. It was a carefully imagined nightmare world where everyone knew their role and stayed within it. I was mesmerised by what fresh horror the author was able to imagine. It didn’t make me cry although I did find it quite depressing. For example, none of the characters ever seemed to rebel against their “fate”. If they had, I think I would have been more touched by their situation. There didn’t seem to be any sense of rejecting what society said they had been born to do. Kath, the carer, didn’t seem to worry about what was going to happen to her, even though she’d seen it play out hundreds of times in the faces and bodies of the people she cared for. Even when Kath and Tommy thought they might be able to get a deferral, to delay the beginning of their donations, they talked in terms of two or three years, not in terms of permanently avoiding such a horrific ending. Ultimately I suspect that to protest would have been futile as Kath and her contemporaries were very much under state control.
The story puts me in mind of Margaret Atwell’s The Handmaid’s Tale, another story of a dystopian future where the rights of women and other “undesirables” are subjugated following a revolution. In Never Let Me Go, both men and women are used for organ donation, but they are clones of what are considered in the story to be “undesirables”, prostitutes, junkies and the like. Both stories allude to how society treats its weaker or more vulnerable members. In Never Let Me Go I found it very strange how there was nothing to suggest that any of the characters wanted to change their lives at all. Each seemed to accept their role and follow it. They look forward to beginning their training as carers or to receiving their first notice to donate. Tommy tells Kath she should request her first donation notice and ask why it has been so long coming. Possibly this is because their everyday lives are so lacking in activity and purpose that they clutch at these milestones as a way of giving meaning to their existence.
It is a dire and dismal life, but even Kath, the narrator, doesn’t express any feelings about being a carer and seeing how her life is going to play out in the people she is caring for. Every day she is faced with her future, but there is little to hint that she thinks it can be any other way. Towards the end of the book Kath starts questioning how her life has been, but not how her future is going to be. In matter of fact language, she questions why, if the students’ only purpose is to donate their organs, they are given an education at all. It is indicated that some of the institutions are more caring than others, but each performs the function of raising the students and educating them.
I found this a very puzzling book because there are so many themes and narratives which could be teased out and many different viewpoints and insights. I will need to re-read it in the future as I feel I have not even scratched the surface. A disturbing, puzzling book, but I loved it.