I seem to be reading a lot of books at the moment where it’s hard to describe the story without giving away spoilers; I will do my best to give a summary of the novel without giving away too much. To start with this is going to be a book you will love or absolutely hate; a brief skim of Amazon reviews shows that opinions are quite divided on this novel.
The story begins in England in the late 1990’s, we are introduced to Kathy, the protagonist, who is a 31 years old and has been a carer for 11 years. The narrative is told from Kathy’s perspective in a very conversational style; you could imagine that you are speaking to someone you have just met. The way that Kathy tells her story is very organic, she flits from her early life to the current day and points in between frequently and suddenly, making it sometimes difficult to keep track of what period she is discussing, and how it relates to the events in the previous pages. I quite liked this style; when you have a discussion with someone in real life, people often go off on tangents, or find themselves having to explain an incident that took place 5 years ago, so that you can understand the significance of something that they did yesterday, but I can understand that it could be perceived as confusing and quite frustrating. At some points I was quite anxious for Kathy to continue telling what happened in the present day, and she would suddenly delve into a story about something that happened when she was thirteen. This style of writing kept me interested in what was going on.
Kathy assumes a certain knowledge on the part of the reader about her circumstances, and at first this was again a bit confusing, but as you continue reading it is possible to pick up more and more information about what is going on, and to get a clear picture of the world that the author has created. I will try not to give too much away, this is another one of those times when having the kindle book start on the first page of the story is a bit of a hindrance. Just after the dedication the author advises that the book is set in England in the late 1990’s.
Kathy is a carer, she mentions that she has been a carer for almost 12 years, and indicates that this is an unusually long period of time. In her role as a carer Kathy looks after ‘donors’; there isn’t a clear description of the donation process, the role of the carers and the donors until the end of the book, but you get the sense that the whole thing is quite sinister. Kathy refers to her work and experiences as if they are common place, and frequently invites the reader to make comparisons to ‘how it is’ where they are/ where.
The donation process is somehow related to the school where Kathy spent her childhood; most of Kathy’s remembrances are about her time at Hailsham and she talks of the place almost reverentially. It becomes clear that Hailsham was different from the other schools. Even the donors that Kathy cared for who weren’t from Hailsham, have strong reactions upon learning that this was where Kathy grew up; they either want to hear all about her experiences or become defensive about their own childhood.
Kathy’s story mostly centres on the two ex-Hailsham students that she has recently cared for: Tommy & Ruth. As Kathy tells the tale of how she cared for Tommy & Ruth as they made their donations and completed, she’s reminisces about their experiences at Hailsham.
As you read, in each chapter it becomes clear that Hailsham was not an ordinary school, and nor were it’s students. The story takes place in a parallel timeline between the 1970’s and late 1990’s; for the most part, world history, technology and culture appear to be the same as in our universe. Kathy makes references to the second world war, hippies, cassette tapes, and the craze for Walkmans in the eighties. The only discernible difference is related to the donation process and the students at Hailsham and similar institutions.
Reading over the above, it strikes me that this information is probably not very helpful, and may seem intentionally mysterious, but my motivation to finish this book was trying to find out what the heck was going on! Kathy makes a comment towards the end of the novel that she and the other students always seemed to understand their purpose, that they were never explicitly told, but were drip fed information in a seemingly innocuous fashion; the reader is similarly led towards what is usually a big reveal – in a quite simple and straightforward manner, the author sums up what has been hinted at throughout the narrative.
A lot of reviews have expressed disappointment and frustration in the way the the story was concluded, they felt that the characters accepted their fate in a way that made everything leading up to this seem s bit pointless, but I felt that it was the only way the story could have ended. The fates of Kathy and her contempories were decided long before the events of the novel; the way that they were schooled and taught to view their place in the world ensured that they would be powerless, and indeed ill equipped to fight that fate.
There are many themes in this book, it could easily be described as a love story, a story about friendship, a coming of age story or a science fiction novel; it is certainly disturbing, mostly for the casual way that the characters refer to their own completion (if you read the book that will absolutely make sense to you). The way that Kathy describes her childhood and teenage years are eerily familiar; I remember playing similar games, the way that children will be best friends one day and the next be enemies, the things that seem so important and capable of causing a massive fallout when you are a child, because at that time they are important, but later in seem insignificant. in my opinion it is the things that as so familiar about the story that resonate the most.
I really enjoyed Never Let Me Go and will probably re-read it, to see how my knowledge of the ending affects the story from Kathys perspective.