I'm not sure why I decided to read Never Let Me Go. I'm generally not a fan of modern 'literary fiction' (too often, the author seems more interested in writing a great novel than a good book), I admired more than I liked The Remains of the Day when I read it 15 years ago. and I'd read a few movie reviews that gave away the plot. Kathy's voice, however, drew me in, and when I was finished, I wanted to know more about the characters - my main yardstick of a good work of fiction.
Never Let Me Go feels a bit like an audio diary, recorded by someone who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Kathy has been a 'carer' for nearly 12 years, comforting and hand-holding donors as they recover (or don't) from repeated surgeries, and she's recently been told that she will soon become a donor herself. Perhaps that's why she's in a reflective mood, looking back at what she knew and didn't know as a child raised in an insular boarding school. The children at Halisham are clones, bred and raised to eventually donate their organs, a fact that they 'know' from a young age but don't seem to really understand. They live until age 17 or so in total isolation, with an art-centric education and no contact with the outer world except for monthly jumble sales where they can buy (approved) items cast-off by the wider world. They learn about their origins and eventual fate almost through osmosis - no one ever says "you are clones bred for spare parts and will die in your 20s or early 30s" but somehow, the students know. They don't understand, but they know and accept their fate.
In most ways, though, the students at Halisham are regular teenagers, and the Never Let Me Go centers on three of them: Ruth, Kathy, and Tommy. Ruth is the most worldly, a somewhat manipulative girl who seems a bit less resigned to her fate and maybe deep down believes that she might work in an office some day and have an ordinary life. She and Kathy are friends almost because they have no one else - they paired off as 'best friends' when they were 12 or so and with no opportunity for new friends, stay together until an argument leads Kathy to begin her training as a carer. Tommy was in their year at Halisham and although Kathy was his confidant, he starts a relationship with Ruth. Several years later, Kathy becomes Ruth's carer. Ruth believes an old rumor, that a couple who are truly in love can postpone their donations for a few years, and she encourages Kathy to reconnect with Tommy so they can both get deferrals. The deferrals, of course, don't exist, and deep down, Kathy and Tommy know this as well.
I just read what I've written, and to be honest, it doesn't sound like a book I'd like to read. I enjoyed it, though. It's a January book - slightly melancholy, rather lonely, isolated and grey even when a group of children are playing on a sunny field. Sometimes a book or movie just 'grabs' me, and I can't explain why I like it (or doesn't grab me and I can't explain why I don't). I think that's the case here. Never Let Me Go is low-key and reflective, downcast but not quite depressing, sort of like the middle of January when the weather is cold and grey and we're coping with returning to the dullness of normal life after the holidays. If I'd read it at another time of year, maybe I'd admire it more than I liked it, but I finished it a few days after the most depressing day of the year so that's not the case.