Top critical review
Just Let It Go
10 January 2019
Never Let Me Go is set in an alternative reality late 1990s England where some people are cloned to be organ donors. They are brought up in special schools in ignorance of the larger society in which their fate is decided. What that society is like and how the donors are bred we are never told. The author’s intention seems to be to explore the human condition through an intensified version of it. However, there are problems.
Donors have only initials for their surnames, to signify their socially incomplete status and their partial anonymity as containers of spare body parts. Like all donors, the narrator, Kathy H, has limited knowledge. This is appropriate to her situation but frustrating for the reader, who wants to know more about this alternative reality, particularly how could the donor caste be so passive, so accepting of their fate? Even in the most extreme of human circumstances—the Holocaust, for example, or Stalin’s Gulag—there was resistance. Humans simply aren’t made to be passive receptors of a ghastly fate designated by others. Such a situation can be presented convincingly, as in Huxley’s Brave New World, but that novel presents a near-complete system of control, where members of the rigidly class-stratified society are designed in laboratories, are chemically produced, so that an epsilon is content to operate a lift all day. In Never, no explanation is given and the partial picture presented through the limited viewpoint of the narrator leaves too many questions unanswered. Explanations conveniently but awkwardly inserted in an unlikely character monologue cum question-and-answer session towards the end of the novel are inadequate and testify to the author’s awareness of the need for explanation rather than satisfy that need.
There is also a problem with the narrative voice. Reading such a limited narrator’s account for almost 300 pages becomes tedious, like listening to the conversation of schoolchildren for hours. The deliberately flat prose style and the endlessly detailed trivia frustrate the reader’s desire for a more engaging narrative voice. Some gain in power towards the end of the novel is not enough to offset the slog of getting there.
It may be objected that the position of the donors is simply an emphatic version of mortality and that therefore they represent all of us, but the problem of the limiting narrative voice and sketchy characterisation remains. Never’s alternative or exaggerated reality doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know about our ultimate fate, and our own thoughts about it may be more interesting than the flat monologue of Kathy H. Ishiguro’s novel is a sincere attempt to explore what it means to be human: our relationships with others, our need for love and achievement, and the inevitability of death, but the device of an incompletely imagined alternative reality narrated through a deliberately limited consciousness creates problems the novel doesn’t solve.