An unsettling and bittersweet novel, Never Let Me Go could be categorised as science fiction because of its central concept. Indeed, I studied it for a science fiction module at university (even giving it an unlikely partner, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, for one of my essays). Like all the best science fiction, it questions our definitions of humanity. It was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award. Yet it reads more like literary fiction with a focus on nostalgia, friendships and the nature of memory. I last read it before the film was released. I found that this time around, the film was playing in my head and I couldn’t really separate it from the book.
Set in an alternative 1990s, the story is narrated by Kathy H. She lives at a wonderful school, Hailsham, where the students are encouraged to be creative and healthy. The other main characters are her best friend Ruth and the misfit Tommy. The story develops slowly, as Kathy looks back on the complex relationships they had at school and examines the reliability of her memories. However, the students’ privileged situation hides the dystopian nature of the society they are going to serve. I should mention that I didn’t know the big ‘spoiler’ before reading this book, so it was genuinely shocking for me the first time I read it.
The writing style is probably what I like the least about this book. There’s a lack of drama, a meandering way of describing events. Of course, this reflects Kathy’s memories, which she is reconstructing to tell the stories of herself, Ruth and Tommy. I also think there are too many incidental characters who add nothing to the story. I do find the book compelling but I’m not sure I like it. The 2010 film (which I will discuss further in a ‘film of the book’ post) is one of my favourites, which I think shows that the concept is brilliant but that it all depends on the storytelling.
First published in 2005. Shortlisted for that year’s Man Booker Prize.