It took me a week to read the first 100 pages of this book. Then I finished the rest of it in a day. It takes a while to get going, but when it’s good, it’s really good.
This is a difficult novel to review because the synopsis is misleading and doesn’t give enough information, but giving too much information will ruin the surprises. I think the book would have been easier for me to get into if I had known more about what was coming. The narrator has a very slow, meandering storytelling style. I kept wondering why I should care about her and her strange childhood. I think the book would have held my attention better if I had some idea about what was going on.
Basically, Never Let Me Go is set in an alternate-history 1970s – 1990s England. Human cloning is an accepted part of life. The narrator, Kathy, is working for hospitals when she reconnects with two of her old school friends, Ruth and Tommy. Her old friends are now patients who she is assigned to care for. Kathy starts reminiscing about Hailsham, the odd, secluded boarding school where she and her friends grew up.
I found the beginning of the book to be really slow, but I was hugely impressed with the author’s ability to write realistic child character. The characters have distinctive personalities. Ruth is a manipulative leader who’ll do whatever it takes to fit in. Tommy is mentally slower than the other kids and has a fiery temper, but he can also be innocent and sweet. Kathy doesn’t put up with crap from either of them. They spend a lot of time arguing and storming away from one another in a huff, but like real children, they forgive each other quickly. The characters are so lifelike that it was easy to see myself and my childhood friends reflected in them. Just like real children, the characters drift apart as they get older and meet new (and less volatile) people.
If you’re a writer who wants to create believable young characters, you need to read this book immediately.
“It never occurred to me that our lives, until then so closely interwoven, could unravel and separate over a thing like that. But the fact was, I suppose, there were powerful tides tugging us apart by then, and it only needed something like that to finish the task. If we'd understood that back then—who knows?—maybe we'd have kept a tighter hold of one another.” - Never Let Me Go
The plot isn’t super unique. If you’ve read other books that involve cloned characters, you can probably guess what happens. However, the way that the author handles the clone plot is unlike any other book about clones I’ve read. Never Let Me Go is probably the most thematically interesting book I’ve come across so far in 2016.
This book is about culture and how we can be so sheltered by our own culture that we don’t question the things that happen to us. We accept cultural oddities because everyone around us does. Sometimes, an event or idea has been around for so long that we just go along with it without thinking. It can be difficult to spot strange ideas in your own world.
At the end of the book, the characters get a chance to talk to people outside of their boarding school culture. They are surprised to find out that the cultural norms that they never questioned are seen as controversial by the outside world. People were fighting to change the characters’ way of life, and the characters never knew that their lives were contentious. Everything that happened was normal to them.
“You have to accept that sometimes that's how things happen in this world. People's opinions, their feelings, they go one way, then the other. It just so happens you grew up at a certain point in this process.” - Never Let Me Go
“The problem, as I see it, is that you've been told and not told. You've been told, but none of you really understand, and I dare say, some people are quite happy to leave it that way.” - Never Let Me Go
I think this book is about the danger of being blinded by your own culture. The alternate-history setting helps drive home that point. The setting is comfortingly familiar—it’s our world—but there are strange things happening in it. This book encourages you to look at your world from a different perspective. By the time you notice that something is wrong, it could be too late to change it. Ask questions and pay attention to life outside of your own boarding school.