I read Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro with a purpose – I want to understand what makes a science fiction novel popular and commercially successful. According to the cover, Time called it “the best novel of the decade.” Over a thousand reviews on Amazon average to four stars. So I read the book trying to pay attention and learn.
The book opens with a data dump – something all writing advice says you must not do. We do learn a titillating detail: that the characters are “donating” their organs until they “complete.” I don’t think this next sentence is much of a SPOILER – it seemed obvious in the first few pages that these young, healthy people “donate” organs until they are killed. Later we learn they are clones and a callous world thinks raising children to produce adult-sized organs is acceptable.
Despite the science fiction premise, the book is about the relationships of teenage boarding school kids – who likes whom, who bullies whom, and (as they grow) who has sex (not graphic). The narrator tells the story as a memoir and frequently interrupts herself to explain things. Although the story covers their teens and 20s, the characters sound pretty much the same throughout the book. They seem to have little initiative, and though they are raised to accept being “donors,” no particular indoctrination justifies their passive attitudes. It was hard for me to identify with any of them. Only one character was upset at having his organs harvested.
The premise is flawed for me. I will accept a fictional world where “they” raise others to provide organs, but they harvest the organs in four separate surgeries with lengthy and presumably expensive recoveries between. That makes no sense – it would be more efficient for a callous society to harvest all the organs at once. But not as tragic, I suppose, for the characters.
The Big Discovery near the end of the book occurs when the two main characters sit in arm chairs and listen to a third character explain things (while inexplicably worrying about men moving a piece of furniture in the next room). What happened to that cornerstone piece of writing advice, “show, don’t tell”?
I can’t explain this book’s appeal, but I can quote from those who love it (from Amazon):
- “Kazuo Ishiguro’s quietly disturbing novel aims to make us question the ethics of science”
- “richly textured description of the relationships”
- “the author not only conjures the question of the meaning of life, he asks us to contemplate the tragedy of wasted lives.”
- “a transcendent novel, an astonishingly powerful work of literature”
- “This novel works beautifully on multiple levels, giving it a quality that kept me thinking about its plot, characters and themes long after I finished its final page”
- “The horror of Never Let Me Go is that the [characters] know almost exactly what lies beyond the curtain and they continue to look and participate in the pageantry of life anyway. How human of them”
- “The book is a beautiful meditation… I must say that I am baffled at all the negative reviews” [About a third of the reviews are 3, 2, or 1 star]
I don’t yet know what I’ve learned from the book – maybe that general literary fiction has a wider appeal than the genre of science fiction (one five-star review said “the story didn’t feel like science fiction” and I agree), that teenage angst is not as interesting to me as it is to many others, and that what writers really need to do to be successful is find “their” readers.