This novel is set in England, and deep into the novel, the reader will realize it takes place some time in the future. Although it is science fiction, it is really interesting since in one form or another, it could be a reality one day soon. The title of the book comes from a music tape of the singer Judy Bridgewater, which was coveted by a character named Kathy H. One day, her tape of the Bridgewater love songs disappears. It seems like an unimportant moment, but as the novel proceeds, the third song on the tape with the words, “Baby, baby, never let me go”, from the title song, “Never Let Me Go”, takes on a deeper meaning with the passage of time. In a sense, the message of the book is about the varied kinds of letting go life sometimes requires, even letting go of life itself.
When the novel begins, we meet Kathy H doing her job, caring for a donor who is recovering poorly from his last donation. As he grows weaker, he asks Kathy to tell him about Hailsham where she was lucky enough to be brought up and attend school. As she goes back in her memory, the readers learn more about her childhood and soon begin to understand what she is, what she does, and what her future holds in store. The readers are introduced to terms like guardians, possibles, normals, carers, donors and outside. All of these words have new meanings. Soon they will learn what it is that makes Kathy H so special.
At Hailsham, the student residents were educated well. They were given opportunities that were not universal in places that reared other children like them. Although they were confined to the area of the school and were not allowed to venture outside, they had full lives. They seemed like ordinary children who played pranks on each other and even played pranks on some of their guardians. They engaged in sporting events. They learned about sex and its pleasures, but they understood that they could not reproduce. Some of the children eventually paired off and became couples. Some just became good friends. However, at age 16, when they were sent to live in the Cottages, they often lost contact with each other. It was there that they learned what their next function was to be and they eventually went off into different directions to work. Tommy and Ruth were Kathy’s best friends at Hailsham, but once she became a carer and went out into the world outside, she lost touch with them. She was always so busy traveling from place to place to do her work, which she was very good at, and she remained a carer for what would eventually be 12 years, far longer than most carers. When she retired, she would be called upon to donate. She, too, would become a donor.
As Kathy explained what Hailsham was like, to the donor she was helping, the reader is drawn into the atmosphere that once was Hailsham and is introduced to many of the residents there. Kathy’s earliest memories go back to when she was age 4 or 5. Her two close friends were Tommy and Ruth. Eventually, Tommy and Ruth coupled off. Kathy often worried about Tommy’s well-being. She was patient and concerned about what his behavior would make other people think about him. He seemed shy and naïve at times, but he had a quick temper. Tommy trusted and confided in Kathy. Ruth, was the opposite of Tommy. She held court telling imaginative stories, and others liked to hear and participate in her games. Miss Lucy, Miss Geraldine, and Miss Emily were Guardians. Madame collected their art work and took it with her outside to what they called her gallery. The children believed that their work that was hanging in the gallery would influence their futures. The guardians all came from outside. They were part of the group the children referred to as normals.
It takes almost half the book to actually discover for sure what many have surely suspected. The children at Hailsham and other facilities had all been modeled after so-called normals. Sometimes, when they traveled outside of their community, they thought they spotted possibles; possibles were the humans they were modeled after. Kathy and her friends were actually clones, clones that were created and raised for the purpose of saving the lives of normals. Most of the donors survived their first donations and they were cared for by their own kind, people like Kathy, an expert carer. Some donors survive longer than others, perhaps even until their fourth donation, but generally, they simply were called upon to donate until they had nothing left to give, and then they were completed. They understood why they had been created and what duty they had to perform. They fulfilled their obligations.
I loved the narrator’s speaking voice and careful pronunciation. She did not overtake and become the story, as is often the case with a narrator. Rosalyn Landor merely told the story with appropriate voices, feeling and emphasis. The author’s prose was sharp and descriptive, and I was fully engaged, but the character development and plot direction could have been broader to make the point of the book clearer, a little earlier. It took me too long to figure out who was who and what was what. I had to go on to the internet to look for brief descriptions of the book in order to discover what kind of a world the author was describing, because although my curiosity was piqued by the telling, my confusion was all the greater because of the innuendos, and I needed sorting out.