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Monday, November 19, 2007

Book Discussion: Never Let Me Go

Today my book group discussed Kazou Ishiguro's dystopian novel Never Let Me Go. The story takes place in the 1990s in an alternative reality England. Sometime in the not so distant past there was a war and afterward science evolved to the point where human clones were created and successfully used to cure cancer and other non-specified diseases.

Although this is the set-up, in true Ishiguro form these "facts" are slowly revealed and not fully realised until the novel's closing chapters. The reader is along for the ride as our narrator Kathy takes us through her life at Hailsham, a British boarding school. Kathy, her best frenemy Ruth, and Ruth boyfriend/confidant to Kathy, Tommy are being raised and trained to be carers and then to give donations. Kathy narrates the story as an adult, but makes it clear that as children, the kids at Hailsham knew they were different, but had no idea how different.

Basically, the story unfolds as both a coming-of-age tale and a dystopian novel. These children are clones, raised to voluntarily become carers, caring for those giving their donations, and then becoming donors themselves until they "complete," or in our terms, die. Scary stuff, but great for a book discussion.

Obviously this is an excellent book discussion choice because of its provocative subject matter. Our group loved Kathy as a narrator since she was the most even keeled of the group. Also, we enjoyed how she relates the story in a very conversational tone, mentioning something new and promising to go back to it after she has finished her current line of thought.

The group also appreciated Ishiguro's slow unveiling of the story's details. He gave everyone just enough to catch onto the "big secret," (they are going to be donating body parts until it literally kills them), but not so much as we could figure everything out before the end where Kathy and Tommy's confront their old Headmistress.

Because so much of the book took place during Kathy, Ruth and Tommy's school years, we had a good discussion about childhood, growing up, and how the experiences of these clones was the same and/or different from "regular" kids. We also discussed how Hailsham could be a play on "hell sham."

One participant brought up the recurrence of the theme of "garbage" throughout the novel, including the last scene where Kathy looks at a fence which has "rubbish" caught up in it. We then went back and found other places where "garbage" was used to symbolize these kids' place in the larger world.

Of course we ended by attacking the issue of human cloning head on. It was an interesting discussion. We not only talked about the what ifs and the we better nots, but we also discussed how the clones in the novel's world could be best handled/raised/treated. As Miss Emily discusses late in the novel, once there was a way to cure cancer, no one wanted to give that up as long as they can just keep the clones providing that cure in the background where the larger world does not have to see them.

Readers who enjoyed Never Let Me Go should try Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood in which a scientist annihilates the entire human race and replaces it with a genetically engineered one. Or the classic cautionary tale of what comes from man artificially creating life, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

Along another line of appeal, those who enjoyed the menacing atmosphere of Hailsham, might also enjoy The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman. In this psychological suspense novel a teacher looks into the dark past of a secluded private school.

One final fiction note, My Sister's Keeper is also a good choice as a readalike. Check out the link to see my student's discussion of it from this month.

In terms of nonfiction, obviously books about cloning would be a good choice. Books that are widely available through my library system and well reviewed include Understanding Cloning from the "Science Made Accessible" series and After Dolly: The Uses and Misuses of Human Cloning by Ian Wilmut and Roger Highfield.

I also tried to locate some boarding school expose books that were not fiction, but aside from reference books rating boarding schools, there were none in my library system's holdings. However, this looks promising and is available on Amazon.

Next month it is our end of the year party and the reading and viewing of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

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