Achaean Book Club - October-November: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

edited September 2018 in The Universal Membrane
Hey y'all, welcome to book club again! I've been busy with other stuff/books so I put this on hold for a bit, but we're back. This book club will run from October 1st to November 30th, though I'm giving people a head start since I know some people take a while to get around to finding and reading these but still want to.

Never Let Me Go was the winner of the last poll. It's a novel by Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro, and here's the full synopsis off Goodreads if you're curious (as always, the Goodreads link has places to buy it):

From the Booker Prize-winning author of The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans, comes an unforgettable edge-of-your-seat mystery that is at once heartbreakingly tender and morally courageous about what it means to be human.

Hailsham seems like a pleasant English boarding school, far from the influences of the city. Its students are well tended and supported, trained in art and literature, and become just the sort of people the world wants them to be. But, curiously, they are taught nothing of the outside world and are allowed little contact with it.

Within the grounds of Hailsham, Kathy grows from schoolgirl to young woman, but it’s only when she and her friends Ruth and Tommy leave the safe grounds of the school (as they always knew they would) that they realize the full truth of what Hailsham is.

Never Let Me Go breaks through the boundaries of the literary novel. It is a gripping mystery, a beautiful love story, and also a scathing critique of human arrogance and a moral examination of how we treat the vulnerable and different in our society. In exploring the themes of memory and the impact of the past, Ishiguro takes on the idea of a possible future to create his most moving and powerful book to date.
Unfortunately, this book is apparently pretty spoilable so I won't be posting any specific discussion questions! I might post some in a spoiler tag later in the thread. Feel free to discuss things such as the major themes of the book and what impact it leaves on you, but tag anything remotely spoiler-worthy with the forum spoiler tag, like this:

For future book options, I'm cutting down the list of books by a lot and using new books as was suggested. The choices are:

The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin (book #1 of the Broken Earth series, and the first author in history to win 3 Hugo Awards for Best Novel in a row)

This is the way the world ends. Again.

Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze -- the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization's bedrock for a thousand years -- collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman's vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.

Now Essun must pursue the wreckage of her family through a deadly, dying land. Without sunlight, clean water, or arable land, and with limited stockpiles of supplies, there will be war all across the Stillness: a battle royale of nations not for power or territory, but simply for the basic resources necessary to get through the long dark night. Essun does not care if the world falls apart around her. She'll break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett (book #1 of the City Watch subseries from Discworld).

Here there be dragons . . . and the denizens of Ankh-Morpork wish one huge firebreather would return from whence it came. Long believed extinct, a superb specimen of draco nobilis ("noble dragon" for those who don't understand italics) has appeared in Discworld's greatest city. Not only does this unwelcome visitor have a nasty habit of charbroiling everything in its path, in rather short order it is crowned King (it is a noble dragon, after all . . .).

Meanwhile, back at Unseen University, an ancient and long-forgotten volume--The Summoning of Dragons--is missing from the Library's shelves. To the rescue come Captain Vimes, Constable Carrot, and the rest of the Night Watch who, along with other brave citizens, risk everything, including a good roasting, to dethrone the flying monarch and restore order to Ankh-Morpork (before it's burned to a crisp). A rare tale, well done as only Terry Pratchett can.

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (pretty sure he needs no intro)

Told with deadpan humour and bitter irony, Kurt Vonnegut's cult tale of global destruction preys on our deepest fears of witnessing Armageddon and, worse still, surviving it ...

Dr Felix Hoenikker, one of the founding 'fathers' of the atomic bomb, has left a deadly legacy to the world. For he's the inventor of 'ice-nine', a lethal chemical capable of freezing the entire planet. The search for its whereabouts leads to Hoenikker's three ecentric children, to a crazed dictator in the Caribbean, to madness. Felix Hoenikker's Death Wish comes true when his last, fatal gift to humankind brings about the end, that for all of us, is nigh...


  • Yay another book! It sounds intriguing, not so sure about the future book options - except for Guards! but I read that one already in the IREad book club. :)
  • I just started but so far I'm really loving the prose of this book! The language flows/reads very casually but it's obviously super carefully constructed.
  • Ill go grab a copy for sure! Need something to do on lunch breaks at work.
  • I finished it, so everything is very spoilery.

    First of all, to get out of the way what I didn't like. I never have liked love triangles, and the relationships in the book felt pretty lame, mostly wherever Ruth was involved. It frustrated and annoyed me, probably just personal taste, but it's not the sort of thing I like to read.

    But leaving the personal part of the story aside, the whole philosophical part was very interesting. It was pretty clear early on who and what the "students" are, but interestingly it was kind of like the reader is "told and not told", just like the students were.

  • Wow, okay, I just finished the book and I have a lot of thoughts and feelings on it. Some quick stuff:

    @Cailin I don't usually like love triangles, or even romances in general since most of them are pretty generic, but I didn't mind it in this book. Really, the book wasn't about the love triangle, it was about the three friends and their youths. It's a lot more like the HP trio than it is like, say, Twilight (lol). Ruth didn't really annoy me, I've met people like that and I found it interesting that a book captured a character like that so well. Ultimately, she was redeemed, too, so it's hard to stay annoyed with her, isn't it? She was never a bad person, she was just handling her lot in life as best she could by clinging to fantasies and what little status she could get.

    Ultimately, it's a very character-heavy story, so characters being flawed or love triangles being cliche didn't bother me. It wasn't particularly handled like other stories, in the first place, and beyond that the book reminds me a lot of Virginia Woolf's style where it doesn't really matter what is happening, but how the characters cope and deal with it. Of course, that's probably because I just recently re-read To the Lighthouse, but Kathy's stream of consciousness narration (even if not as extreme) and the focus on often very mundane interactions is pretty analogous. The difference is that Woolf's stuff is mundane things in a mundane world, whereas this book is about mundane interactions in a very screwed up world for people whose lives are, by any of our standards, quite miserable. At least, miserable in outcome, since the whole Hailsham experiment was nominally to prevent their entire lives from being miserable.

    I get what you mean by the philosophical part, and in some way they're interlinked, but I'd consider the book more directly political than anything. Its core question is: how much suffering is permissible to sustain a privileged lifestyle for a portion of the population? This is the kind of question that gets brought up all the time when discussing wealth inequality or first/third world relations, so I found the way Ishiguro covered it to be more rooted in direct analogy than just a thought experiment. Again, though, you could say this of a lot of sci-fi and generally philosophical novels, so this is just semantics to state that the central question being asked is quite direct.

    There's always a casual air of alienation and learned helplessness with the students, with Tommy and Kath being the only two that show any kind of rebellion at all. Even then, it's very minor in the end. On the other hand, we have Miss Emily acting as if she deserves to be thanked for what she did, as if these children aren't ultimately meeting the same fate. Sure, she didn't mean it like that, but it was hard to ignore that she had shades of putting the project above the people in some way. Whether that's all she could really do is hard to say, though. Still, it mirrors how these things often play out in real life, too. Oppressed populations are conditioned to never question/want more, and those above are meant to be held as saviors if they do anything at all for them.

    I'm rambling a bit now, but overall I found the novel super touching. It's hard to imagine the kind of misery that being told your life has a set expectancy because your body isn't your own would lead you to, or to imagine being like Kath and being the last one standing before she's even 40 while 'normal' people presumably have at least twice that life expectancy with medicine's progress. So many of them are just resigned to their fates, and even Kath tends to not get too emotional about the fact that she's watched her best friends, her childhood, her school all disappear from her life. The tone is so detached most of the time, too, which makes the final scene with her just longing for Tommy while crying all the more powerful, imo.

  • edited October 2018
    Incidentally, the back of my edition had some discussion questions in the back that people might find interesting. Some other people typed them up so I'm putting the ones I find most interesting here:

    1. Kathy addresses us directly, with statements like “I don’t know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham we used to have some form of medical every week” , and she thinks that we too might envy her having been at Hailsham. What does Kathy assume about anyone she might be addressing, and why?

    2. Why is it important for Kathy to seek out donors who are “from the past,” “people from Hailsham”? She learns from a donor who’d grown up at an awful place in Dorset that she and her friends at Hailsham had been really “lucky”. How does the irony of this designation grow as the novel goes on? What does Hailsham represent for Kathy, and why does she say at the end that Hailsham is “something no one can take away”?

    3. Kathy’s narration is the key to the novel’s disquieting effect. First person narration establishes a kind of intimacy between narrator and reader. What is it like having direct access to Kathy’s mind and feelings? How would the novel be different if narrated from Tommy’s point of view, or Ruth’s, or Miss Emily’s?

    4. What are some of Ruth’s most striking character traits? How might her social behavior, at Hailsham and later at the Cottages, be explained? Why does she seek her “possible” so earnestly?

    5. One of the most notable aspects of life at Hailsham is the power of the group. Students watch each other carefully and try on different poses, attitudes, and ways of speaking. Is this behavior typical of most adolescents, or is there something different about the way the students at Hailsham seek to conform?

    6. How do Madame and Miss Emily react to Kathy and Tommy when they come to request a deferral? Defending her work at Hailsham, Miss Emily says, “Look at you both now! You’ve had good lives, you’re educated and cultured". What is revealed in this extended conversation, and how do these revelations affect your experience of the story?

    7. Why does Tommy draw animals? Why does he continue to work on them even after he learns that there will be no deferral?

    8. Kathy reminds Madame of the scene in which Madame watched her dancing to a song on her Judy Bridgewater tape. How is Kathy’s interpretation of this event different from Madame’s? How else might it be interpreted? Is the song’s title again recalled by the book’s final pages?

    9. After their visit to Miss Emily and Madame, Kathy tells Tommy that his fits of rage might be explained by the fact that “at some level you always knew”. Does this imply that Kathy didn’t? Does it imply that Tommy is more perceptive than Kathy?

    10. The teacher Lucy Wainright wanted to make the children more aware of the future that awaited them. Miss Emily believed that in hiding the truth, “We were able to give you something, something which even now no one will ever take from you, and we were able to do that principally by sheltering you. . . . Sometimes that meant we kept things from you, lied to you. . . . But . . . we gave you your childhoods”. In the context of the story as a whole, is this a valid argument?

    11. Is it surprising that Miss Emily admits feeling revulsion for the children at Hailsham? Does this indicate that she believes Kathy and Tommy are not fully human? What is the nature of the moral quandary Miss Emily and Madame have gotten themselves into?

    12. Some reviewers have expressed surprise that Kathy, Tommy, and their friends never try to escape their ultimate fate. They cling to the possibility of deferral, but never attempt to vanish into the world of freedom that they view from a distance. Yet they love the film The Great Escape, “the moment the American jumps over the barbed wire on his bike”. Why might Ishiguro have chosen to present them as fully resigned to their early deaths?

    13. Reread the novel’s final paragraph, in which Kathy describes a flat, windswept field with a barbed wire fence “where all sorts of rubbish had caught and tangled.” She imagines Tommy appearing here in “the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up”. What does the final sentence indicate about Kathy’s state of mind as she faces her losses and her own death — stoicism, denial, courage, resolution?

    14. In a recent interview, Ishiguro talked about Never Let Me Go: “There are things I am more interested in than the clone thing. How are they trying to find their place in the world and make sense of their lives? To what extent can they transcend their fate? As time starts to run out, what are the things that really matter? Most of the things that concern them concern us all, but with them it is concertinaed into this relatively short period of time. These are things that really interest me and, having come to the realization that I probably have limited opportunities to explore these things, that’s what I want to concentrate on." How do these remarks relate to your own ideas about the book? [Interview with Nicholas Wroe, The Guardian, February 2, 2005.]

    Personally, question 14:

    It struck me as odd, reading about the novel after I finished, that some people apparently focused on the clone thing as a main theme. The cloning itself is a macguffin, imo, in that it's almost entirely unimportant as a specific thing beyond the 'possibles' talk. What struck me most about the novel was basically what Ishiguro mentioned: how do you live your life when you're 'destined' to this very specific and not at all happy ending? I mentioned it in my previous post, but so much of it ends up being mundane precisely because they are ultimately just human. They're human beings dealing with human problems in an extreme situation, which is also what Hailsham was trying to prove with the art thing, in a way. It'd be hard for an in-universe character to read Kath's memoir and somehow be able to deny her humanity, because she's so completely 'normal' if you move past the status imposed on her, and I suppose that's the other message of the novel as far as othering goes.

    The novel is 'sci fi' by some definition, then, but it's the softest kind of sci-fi, whereas some people seem to have expected it to be hard scifi or have the technology itself be a focus. There's no moral judgement about cloning on its own in the book, really, beyond maybe the incident Miss Emily speaks about. More than that, it's about the Other and, you could say, the importance of having some kind of morality attached to science in general, rather than just doing things because you can.
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