Friday, November 29, 2013

Cephalopod Coffeehouse Review: Never Let Me Go

As the Cephalopod Coffeehouse review for November approached, I began weighing and comparing the various books I read this month. As I am writing two Cephalopod reviews, I think will save my actual favorite for my personal blog. For the Writing Sisterhood I'm going to cheat a little and present the weirdest book of the month for me: Never Let Me Go, the strange, semi-dystopian novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.



First, it's a book written by a Japanese-Brit, which is a little unusual. Ishiguro moved from Japan to the UK when he was five years old, and if this book is any indication, he thoroughly identifies as an Englishman. Ishiguro is best known for his novel The Remains of the Day, about a lovelorn butler, whom most of you are probably picturing as Anthony Hopkins. As with that novel, Never Let Me Go was turned into a major motion picture. I haven't seen it yet: I'm hoping the film fixes the problems I had with the novel.

Before I progress, there's no way to talk about this book without spoiling it, as mystery and slow-reveal are the driving force behind it. So if you haven't read it yet, you may not want to continue past these next few caveats: first, it's not really as sci-fi book, so ignore that description. It's not even dystopian, not in the sense you're used to. I am reviewing it as a highly-praised polemic that ultimately misses the mark; if you still want to read it, go do that. If you expect you never will, you can keep reading this review.

I read this book in less than 24 hours, so clearly I found it gripping. The setting is an modern-day English boarding school, called Hailsham, populated by "special students," which will put many people in mind of Harry Potter. But what makes these students special is left deliberately unclear, both to themselves and to the reader, for much of the book. The reader learns about what's happening roughly at the same time as the main characters, but unlike the reader, the main characters don't seem to care. And this is one serious flaw of the book: the characters don't care about their own fate.

We've gotten used to dystopian novels—especially where teens are involved—as "rage against the machine" stories where the young 'uns fight back, form a rebellion. And most dystopian novels nowadays are written expressly for a teen audience, but there is a respectable subset of dystopian novels that are written for adults, and in these, the system usually wins: the opposition is crushed or assimilated. Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Minority Report, and Brave New World are examples. Never Let Me Go seems to want to be this sort of book, although the nemesis is less speculative and more realistic than in classic dystopian works. In any event, the system appears to win in the end of Never Let Me Go. But unlike most dystopian novels, nobody even fights back in this one. As I came up to the end of the book, I began to wonder if passivity had actually been bred into the students. Humans, the real kind, have a survival instinct. Are these characters truly human? Did Ishiguro mean to be so ambiguous about that?

What drove the book forward was the unanswered question of what Hailsham is about; you don't know what's going on and you keep thinking the next page might give you the answer. So you keep turning pages. I was glued to the sofa for five hours straight. But once the majority of the questions were answered by the Hailsham's administrators (about 80% if the way through), the forward momentum was really lost for me, and I kind of plodded through the rest of it. And here it is (true spoiler alert here): Society is breeding clones for the purposes of organ transplants. The clones are informed of their purpose and know that the organ donations will result in their death; they seem all right with this. The purpose of Hailsham is not just to rear clone children, but actually to form a little rebellion: the administrators want to prove that clones aren't just vessels, but living breathing feeling human beings. Hailsham is a sort of arts school, and the art that the students produce is supposed to be a sort of Turing test: only real humans, not machines, can make art. The students dutifully churn out art, but the rebellion is quashed when something totally unrelated to the rest of the story happens offscreen, and so the school is shut down.

And so the reader is left with a big "meh." If society doesn't mind, and the clones themselves don't mind, what's the point of a rebellion? If the rebellion ends because of actions completely outside the plotline, what was the storytelling purpose of it? In the end, when the main characters "complete" (i.e., die from having given up all their vital organs) I had a hard time caring. Society didn't care about them, their protectors didn't care about them, and they don't even care about themselves. So why should the reader care? The point of the novel was not the people, but the morality tale. Morality is always a weak pillar on which to hang a story, and Ishiguro doesn't even seem clear on what his moral message is. I have to give it a certain number of stars for holding my attention, but I was left fairly unsatisfied. The whole question raised is whether these test-tube clones, raised only for their organs, are really human. The purpose of the art gallery and the whole Hailsham project was to prove the students had souls, had feelings. But do they? They seem like normal enough children and teens, but when they are asked to walk into the slaughterhouse, they don't hesitate. There's no attempt to escape. There's the barest nod to the idea that at least claiming to fall in love with another student can defer the slaughter for a few years, and the two protagonists make a halfhearted stab at this, but it's not at all convincing.

I have to say, for a book that I didn't especially love, Never Let Me Go has stayed on my mind for days and days since I've finished. Mostly I'm trying to reconcile how it was I was so gripped by the narrative and yet left so terribly unsatisfied. I felt like the novel was a long-winded way of saying, "Hey y'all, don't do cloning, OK?" Or maybe it was the more generic "Science Is Dangerous!" morality tale that much sci-fi (ironically) seems to be. If you're going to write a polemic, you'd better be very clear on your moral message and all your characterization and plot had better be in service to that message. Otherwise, please for the love of God, save us hours of feverish page-turning and just write an essay.

Did you read the novel? Have you read anything else by Ishiguro, and what do you think of his style? Are there novels with a moral message you feel work better than others, and how do they pull it off?

Be sure to check out these other Cephalopod Reviews:


1.The Armchair Squid2.Scouring Monk
3.mainewords4.Huntress
5.DeniseCCovey6.A Creative Exercise
7.Trisha @ WORD STUFF8.Katie O'Sullivan ~ Read, Write, Repeat
9.V's Reads10.Bird's Nest
11.Hungry Enough To Eat Six!12.The Random Book Review
13.Words Incorporated14.Defending the Pen

25 comments:

  1. Hi Stephanie. You write a very smooth review. I loved The Remains of the Day, of course, and wonder at the subject matter of this book by the same author. I no longer persevere with books if I don't care about the characters, and this sounds like I wouldn't, but who really knows unless we try? I abandoned The Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling for the same reason. I couldn't find even one character to care about.

    Be interesting to see the film of this book though. No doubt the director will put a little more flesh on the bones.

    Denise

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    1. Hi Denise: I am also anxious to watch the accompanying movie. My kiddo read this book with her teacher-led book club, and we're thinking of pulling together that crew for a movie night. Keira Knightley is usually pretty good, so who knows? I also want to see (maybe more than read) Remains of the Day. I agree with you about persevering ... I might not have, had I known how disappointed I'd feel at the end.

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  2. I never know what to do with a story I don't like but that stays with me. There's gotta be something there, right? I haven't read the book but I read your spoilers anyway. Doomed characters resigned to their fate - I think I'd find difficulty digging up sympathy, too.

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    1. I have to give props to a writer who can get my brain going even though the rest of me is resisting the story. Maybe this one will gestate for a while and hatch into some fruition later. I have a feeling Philip K. Dick might approve. :)

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  3. I feel like I've heard of this book, but I haven't read it yet. Thanks to your review, I'm going to have to track it down.

    I very rarely quit reading a book. I make myself finish reading even if I hate myself every word of the way. I should probably stop doing that.

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    1. You probably should! But I'm like you. I feel committed. It's like having a bad boyfriend you just ... can't ... quite ... give up on. OK, maybe not QUITE that bad. :D

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  4. Stephanie, I read this book a few years ago, with huge expectations. For awhile I thought I had a couple of favorite characters, but in the end the whole thing just bummed me out completely. I don't think I can sit through a movie of this book. And while I can forget the plots of at least half the books I read...this one will never go away!! Why is that? It's the worst, having something unimpressive take up valuable brain-space. Remains of the Day was a good book and I hardly remember a thing about it.

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    1. Isn't it a little worrisome when you know a book was "good" but you can't remember a dang thing about it? I feel that way about way too many books; I think that's why I write everything down at Goodreads. So I don't forget what I loved/hated about a book. I feel the same way as you about Never Let Me Go ... so much promise, and then it all goes wobbly. I do plan to give the movie a go, though. Knowing Hollywood, it will have a sparklier ending. In this case, that would be welcome.

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  5. As this is on my list of books to read, I guess I shouldn't read most of your review if it'll spoil it. :P

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    1. So do read it ... and then come back and let me know if you agree! My daughter liked it much more than I did, so apparently a positive review is possible.

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  6. p.s. I haven't seen the Goldbergs - nor heard of it till you mentioned it! Thanks for the tip :D

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    1. That was Mary Mary (I know, it's hard to keep us straight — sometimes I can't even remember which one of us wrote what) ... and now I want to check it out too!

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    2. You should totally see The Goldbergs if you love the 80s, Trisha!

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  7. Sometimes dissatisfaction is not necessarily disappointment, but rather a duly registered reaction, which may well have been the point, that you understood exactly what the author intended. It was thought-provoking. Sometimes it turns out to be depressing, which is the perfect representation of the author's viewpoint. The opposite of this is when you know you've understood the intention but know instinctively that the premise was undercooked in order to fit an agenda that the author was dead-set on exploring even though they clearly stopped thinking about how it should logically play out in the story.

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    1. Yes, that illogically-though-out agenda pushing is the very worst sort of didactic novel, isn't it? I'm not sure, still, whether this one fits your former or latter description. He may have intended my dissatisfied reaction; certainly he means to provoke. 1984 is similar, right? You're not supposed to walk away happy. But I can't get past the idea that these people would just stroll merrily (or at least resignedly) into the gaping maw of death.

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  8. I've heard about the movie but never knew it was based on a book. From your review, this looks like another book that goes on my lengthy TBR list, LOL.

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    1. That endless TBR list never does get shorter, does it? Between these book reviews and the Kindle daily deals, I know I'll never cross everything off the list.

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  9. I love the cover! Too bad the book didn't live up to your expectations. I hate it when that happens.

    This novel reminded me of a 70s film with Michael Douglas called "Coma" where they also "harvest" people for cloning purposes. But this is a thriller/suspense so the two protagonists do care! (And the patients have no idea of what's going on.) This makes a big difference because you're rooting for them all along, plus you want to know what's going on with the people who strangely end up in a coma. I'm surprised there hasn't been more of these cloning/organ donations novels.

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    1. I have a feeling I might have seen that movie, it rings a bell. I did want to love this book, and it might just be that Ishiguro's prose style (apparently his other novels have a similar dreamlike feel with passive, floating characters) just doesn't suit me. Maybe it's an excellent novel, if you "get it."

      My son just finished the second of a YA series that could be described as "dystopian organ donation." It's called "Unwind" and while I haven't read it, it certainly sounds gripping. He keeps telling me bits and pieces of it.

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  10. "Society is breeding clones for the purposes of organ transplants. The clones are informed of their purpose and know that the organ donations will result in their death; they seem all right with this."

    I'm surprised nobody has mentioned "The Island" by now. The premise of clones not knowing they're clones for organ harvesting and producing babies and expecting to leave to a utopian world called The Island sounds very similar to this book. Big difference: In "The Island", when the clones figure out what's going on, there is no way they plan on staying and being slaughtered for some selfish individual who only wants their body parts. I'm not sure I'd enjoy "Never Let Me Go" if it's just a bunch of ignorant lambs being led to the slaughter. Where's the motivation to root for a character? Try "The Island" if you haven't watched it already!

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    1. Thanks for the suggestion, MM! I will add it to my watch list.

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    2. OK, it's not available to rent from Amazon, Netflix, OR Hulu+. Isn't that crazy? Do you happen to have a copy, by any chance, that I could borrow?

      I meant to tell you and Lorena, by the way ... we watched Rope! We all really enjoyed it except the young 'un; he thought it was "weird and boring." :)

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    3. My husband used to have a copy, but it got lost in one of our moves. I do know the local library (you know the one I mean) has a copy because we recently checked it out so he could watch it again. Or you could try iTunes.

      As to Rope, well...not everyone's a Hitchcock fan! ;)

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  11. This was an excellent review. I loved The Remains of the Day, which I felt didn't miss a beat, so I'm sorry that aspects of this novel seem to be a little uneven. It does sound like a gripping story, though.

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    1. Thank you, Elizabeth! It was indeed gripping.

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