Never Let Me Go is a frustrating and, ultimately, disappointing book about a trio of children whose lives are not what they seem. Or perhaps they are exactly what they seem and maybe that’s the whole point; by book’s end their lives seem cramped, claustrophobic, frustrating and sad, which is really what makes the book seem the same.
The novel begins as a sort of mystery. The first impression is that this is a story of privileged boarding school kids in England. In fact, my first thought was that the novel was going to be something like The Secret History. I could not have been more wrong.
For the first 80 pages or so you learn about these children and their strange and sheltered lives. It doesn’t take long to realize something very odd is happening here, but not until you’re more than a full third of the way into the book do you learn what makes these kids and this place they’re in so different. Yet even with so much buildup the news hits a flat note, leaving little effect on the reader (81). Perhaps that’s because by the time you get to this little revelation you’re already fatigued by the endless string of highly significant glances and mysteries and unknowns. “Is that all this book is about?” I thought. I have to say the movie “The Island” had a very similar plot but I derived much more enjoyment from its more dramatic and less pretentious execution.
Looking back now (and that’s one of the most overused phrases in the bookâ€”it must appear on just about every page), it’s hard to put my finger on exactly why this book is so dissatisfying. However, a lot of it has to do w/the fact that it simply doesn’t give an adequate explanation for why these “students” basically give up their lives so willingly. Sure, they are trained from birth to be good little subjects locked in the thrall of propriety, afraid to do anything that might offend anyone. And yes, that explains the claustrophobic atmosphere of the novel and why its characters seem to have so much trouble communicating. They are trained to be almost completely submissive to any and all authority, even the weak authority of the hierarchies they create among themselves. (As shown, for example, in the pecking order Ruth establishes among her friends where she’s the authority they are all deathly afraid of offending.) So these are little creatures trained to obey the dictates of a system they don’t really understand. That goes some way to explaining why they go so willingly to their slow but certain deaths.
Still, it’s not enough because once they leave the boarding school-like Hailsham, they seem almost entirely free to do just about whatever comes into their heads. They can spend their days reading, or they can borrow cars and travel around the countryside eating out at restaurants and buying little trinkets. That means they could read newspapers and/or watch tv, but they don’t seem to do that and instead seem almost entirely ignorant of the “regular” world around them. They do read magazines, but the only ones we hear about are the porn mags that Kath stares at in hope of finding her “possible.” But the point is, these are supposed to be smart, well-read, artistic people, yet none of them, not one, gets curious enough about the system in which they’re enmeshed to even try to break out of it? Why doesn’t one of themâ€”just one!â€”try to run away and escape his or her dreadful future? In short, there’s an unreconciled conflict between how accomplished and intelligent these “students” are supposed to be, and how little effort they make to really find out what’s happening to themâ€”or to try to do anything about it.
In trying to place the students in a sort of parallel universe to that of “regular people,” the novel makes them oblivious to certain basic matters that would have been simple to explain. For example, where do they get their money? They don’t seem to give thought one about the economics of their livesâ€”who is paying for their room and board, and where their spending money comes from. Of course, this, too, can be mostly explained by their deliberately sheltered lives, but it takes their isolation and ignorance of practical life a step too far for me.
Finally, for reasons that remain unclear, the “students” develop unnecessarily odd habits and affectations. For example, why would they ever call homosexual activity ” getting all umbrella”? (96). And are we really supposed to believe these teenagers enjoyed gathering in clusters on the lawn to pass around the earphones hooked to one walkman? And that it was common for one of them to walk up to such a cluster and ask, “What’s the sound?” (103). I guess we’re supposed to believe it, but I don’t. It doesn’t make Hailsham seem realistically different, it just makes it seem crudely drawn.
But I’m probably being too harsh. This book frustrated me a great deal at times, yet I always wanted to keep reading. If I felt a little more charitable I could probably see it as a masterful example of a novel that builds its plot around atmosphere and frustration, putting the reader in the same sort of frustrated and sheltered state of mind as its characters. Sounds brilliant, doesn’t it? And perhaps it is.