Sunday, March 8, 2009

Barren B*tches Book Tour: "Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguro

(**Be forewarned: if you haven't read the book yet, this post is bound to contain a lot of spoilers.**)

This book is going to haunt me for a long time.

I read the entire book dry-eyed, but when I got to the long final paragraph that ends the book, I started to sob. I was at the dinner table (reading -- which my mother didn't like us doing -- another perq of childless living...!) & dh looked up from his magazine & at me like I was nuts.

"I'm sorry," I whispered. "It's the book..." and my voice trailed off into sobs again. He shrugged & said, "As long as it's not about me!" lol

This book reminded me of every English boarding school novel I had ever read, & some Holocaust memoirs too. It also reminded me of a previous BBBT pick, "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood. (Interestingly, I found a review of the book by Atwood on It's got tinges of science fiction and horror about it.

One thing I found amusing in the book that nobody seems to have picked up on for a question is the emphasis on creating and creativity at Hailsham. We find out why much later in the book. But I thought it was funny, reading the book from an infertile perspective. One review I read noted that in most schools, the emphasis is on sports -- it's the athletes who are worshipped and popular. The artists/creative types are the ones on the margins. But I thought that in a larger sense, it's true that our world is all about creating -- creating life -- i.e., pregnancy & parenthood --and those of us who are infertile are somehow judged as "less than" because we can't create, or at least not in the same way that most people can. We have to exercise our creativity in other ways -- more creatively, lol.

I also found it interesting how the clones were so fascinated with their origins -- just as adopted children and those conceived through donor gametes often want to meet their biological parents. They know the basic facts, of course -- that they are clones -- but they keep a watchful eye out for their "possibles" -- the people they were modelled from. I love the use of the word "possible" here. Not only are the children fascinated by the possibility of a genetic match (a "possible"), they are infinitely curious about what kind of lives their doubles lead -- the possibility of another kind of life. Even though they accept (for the most part) their own lives and fates, they still get a vicarious, peeking-through-the-windows thrill from looking into the office where Ruth's "possible" works, taking note of all the details -- a world so unlike the one they come from.

Just as I was finishing the novel last week, I saw an online news item that filming will start next month in England on a movie adaptation starring Keira Knightley as Kathy, & two other British actors whose names I don't recognize as Ruth & Tommy. Should be interesting...

Each of us participating in this edition of the Barren B*tches Book Tour (organized by Mel at Stirrup Queens) has read the book, submitted a question, & received a list of everyone's questions from Mel. We then answer at least three of them in our blog, and post at or around the same time.

Here my picks (I can never limit myself to just three questions...!):

On page 197 Kazuo Ishiguro writes, "It never occurred to me that our lives, until then so closely interwoven, could unravel and separate over a thing like that." Have any of your relationships unravelled because of IF and were they relationships that you thought would be strong enough weather the struggles of IF?

I've written before about dh's cousin/our neighbour, & how we've drifted apart in the years since the stillbirth of our daughter. We went from having his wife plan my baby shower & promising me that she'd be over every day to help with the baby to the point where we only see them two or three times a year now, at the same family barbecues, weddings, funerals, etc., where we see everyone else. And we live a five-minute walk away from them. :( I'm not sure exactly why we've drifted apart in this way -- it's not like we had a big falling out with them. It was more of a gradual erosion of the relationship. I just think that (a) they got busier as their kids got older, & they got more involved with other parents in the neighbourhood, & (b) people are naturally uncomfortable with loss & infertility. But it's very sad.

Unrelated to infertility, I also find myself thinking of how my dad's three half-siblings (two in particular) fell out with my dad & his five other siblings after the death of their father, over the terms of his will. As my mother said, even she knew the terms of the will before my grandfather died -- if someone had any objections, they should have spoken up while my grandfather was alive. (Not that he would have changed his mind, being an extremely stubborn man...!) It's not like my grandparents were rich either -- we're not talking about huge sums of money or property. The pettiness of it all just astonished me. Family meant everything to my grandparents, & I'm sure they have both turned over in their graves repeatedly over what has happened in the last 20 years. :(

P.S. I must have a different edition, because I can't find that line on that page of my copy. Oh well...!

One thing that struck me while reading the book is that the characters seem very passive. Although certain knowledge is withheld from them along the way, and they do have questions, they do not really rebel or protest their fate, or try to escape. They seem quite accepting of the future that has been laid out for them. Why do you think this is so?

This was my question, & I've been thinking a lot about it as I read the novel & even since I finished it. I think part of the answer is in the way the children were brought up. As Miss Lucy said, they knew, but they didn't know. Information was fed to them in pieces, at certain times. The system was structured in such a way that "the rules" were never entirely revealed to them. Although I don't recall that they were explicitly forbidden to leave the grounds, tales about horrible things happening in the woods were enough to feed their imaginations & keep them in line.

As Kathy & Tommy discovered when they began investigating the possibility of a deferral (the most they seem to hope for -- not escaping their fate, just delaying it), they had no idea whether a deferral was actually possible (or just a rumour among the donors). They had no idea the conditions or grounds on which a deferral might be granted. They had no idea where they could go or who they could consult to learn whether such a thing was even possible. Although they seem to have a certain amount of freedom to interact with the "outside world" as adults, they don't seem to exercise it very much. After they leave their guardians at Hailsham, they seem to have very little contact with those who know who they are and what it going to happen to them (e.g., Keffers at the Cottages). They talk about going on courses and getting notices of their next donations, but we don't know who issues these.

Once Hailsham closed, that source of information and support was closed to them forever (if it hadn't been already). Even when Hailsham was still open, they had no idea where it was, should they want to go back there. And even if they had run away -- where would they go? How would they survive? There's no information in the novel about what might happen should such a thing be attempted, but I'm sure they would be hunted down & brought back to their donations centre, and whatever freedom they had to interact with the "outside world" would surely be taken away or severely curtailed. And with their strange upbringing, even if they did manage to escape, their naivete about the "outside world" would surely trip them up before long. They seemed like normal kids in so many ways... and yet they weren't.

All of us grow up with certain assumptions and are moulded to some extent by our surroundings, by what our parents & teachers tell us, and by pressure from our peers. When you don't know anything else, it's sometimes difficult to envision other possibilities for yourself & your life. It takes strength & courage to break the mould & push at those boundaries (some might call them limitations) -- to buck the system. If you grow up in a poor neighbourhood with high unemployment and a high drop-out rate, it's hard to envision yourself at university. If your parents and teachers expect you to go to the same Ivy League universities your friends will be attending, it takes guts to go to a third-world country to work with a human rights organization instead.

There is so much that we accept passively because "that's the way it is, or always has been" or "what can little old me do about it?" It could be argued that many people (only in the fertile world, of course...!) drift into parenthood this way -- because having kids is just what you do when you grow up & get married -- without really considering whether they are truly willing or ready to do the hard work that's involved. It's also why it takes so many of us so long to act on that nagging feeling that something is not quite right, when we've been trying to get pregnant for a year, or two, or three, and it's just not happening.

I know that I drifted along for several years after we began ttc, thinking, "Well, maybe we're just not meant to be parents." Who knows what might have happened (or not happened), had I not finally, suddenly, gotten pregnant when I did, 2 & 1/2 years into the quest? That changed everything -- jolted my complacency. After I lost the baby, I pursued pregnancy with a new vigour. I had come so tantalizingly close to holding a real live baby in my arms. Surely if I just put a little more conscious effort into ttc, I could cut that 2 & 1/2 years by half, or more. Surely that stillbirth was a fluke. And so we began our trip down the long & slippery slope...

There is so much that happens in our world that is outrageous -- yet people don't get outraged. There is an inertia in our culture sometimes. (As detailed above -- I am as guilty as anyone else.) We see things on the TV news -- children starving in Africa, soldiers being killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, people in those countries and others living in horrible situations. We think, "Oh, how awful!" and then go back to eating our dinner. Even on things that would appear to affect us more directly, we drag our feet. We know that our planet is in bad shape, and yet we still continue to pollute it, and our politicians continue to drag their feet -- even resist -- on taking action. Sometimes, we're just too busy surviving, trying to keep our heads above water, to take on the task of change.

Some people do get outraged, of course, and work tirelessly to change the system -- a little, if not a lot. There are anti-war protesters and poverty activists. In the novel, there are people like Madame & Miss Emily who try to raise public awareness of the issues surrounding the "donors." But it takes a lot of people and a lot of effort to effect long-lasting, meaningful change. On cloning, or any other subject.

At what point did you realize what the book was about and did it change the way you viewed the main characters?

(Sorry, Mel.) I confess: I was barely two pages into the book before I Googled it to try to figure out what the heck was going on. (And yes, I will often jump to the end of mystery novels to find out exactly whodunnit.) Having that information, though, did not detract from the ultimate power of the story for me. Despite their sci-fi-like origins, the characters seemed fully human to me. Which added to the tragedy of the story.

I was reminded when I was watching the documentary Bio-Dad recently that children conceived through donor sperm were once regarded with some suspicion, as not quite "natural." Similarly, Louise Brown, the first baby born through IVF, has been scrutinized all her life, her growth and progress constantly compared to that of "normally" conceived children. There was great relief, it seemed, when she recently had a healthy baby herself -- "the old-fashioned way."

I also thought of Nazi Germany and the attitudes of the time toward Jewish people (among other groups).

At the end of Never Let Me Go, they mentioned “designer babies” had turned people against the whole clone issue. Now, ABC news featured a story tonight (3/3/09) about parents being able to build their baby (a bit of reality reflecting art). How does this make you feel? Do you think PGD should only be used to avoid health issues and genetic defects? Is it ok to use it to have a baby who can save your current child’s life through marrow transplant? Is it ok to pick hair type and eye color?

Conceiving a sibling as a donor is an understandable move by desperate parents (and I know it has been done)... but it still give me pause. The same with avoiding health issues and genetic defects. I suppose pre-selection is preferable to having a mother carry a baby who isn't going to live, for however long the parents & dr determine the pregnancy should continue once an anomaly has been detected --it would save parents a lot of uncertainty, anguish & pain. But using PGD just to pick hair and eye colour & other such "traits" -- I find that unnerving.

If you were a student a Hailsham, would you have wanted to know your ultimate destiny as a Donor? Why or why not? How do you think knowing at that point in your life would have affected you? Does this desire to know your outcome apply to your own real life? In what situations do you find knowledge helpful? At what times can it be detrimental?

I suppose it can be compared to learning that you have a terminal illness and nothing more can be done for you. We all know we are going to die someday, and some of us know that we are going to die sooner than others. The donors, of course, unlike us, know the exact date they will reach "completion."

Some people respond to a death sentence by attacking what's left of their life with gusto -- making their "bucket lists" & crossing items off it one by one -- travelling, spending time with their loved ones, writing their memoirs, disposing of their property, ensuring their final wishes are understood, planning their funerals -- doing all the things they've ever wanted to do & saying all the things that need to be said, before time runs out & it's too late.

Others, of course, may think, "I'm dying, it's over. What's the point?" and withdraw from the world. (Or even take it upon themselves to make an even earlier exit.)

This was one of the more disturbing aspects of this novel for me. If the entire purpose of your existence is to grow up, donate your organs & then quietly die... what's the point of everything that goes before it? (Tommy asks some of these questions, late in the book.) Why the art, the essays?

We may not know the date of our "completion," but it's going to happen, sooner or later. So what then is the purpose of our existence?

I think for us, as for the characters in the novel, it's the relationships we form that give our lives colour and meaning and purpose. Caring for others, as Kathy does as a friend, lover and"carer" before becoming a donor herself. Most people will automatically tell you that it's their children who give their lives meaning and purpose. Those of us who are childless have to find meaning in other places. Sometimes, that can be tough.

If you think too much about it -- even if you have children or other people or things that give your life some purpose -- it can be a pretty bleak scenario -- and in that sense, this was a somewhat depressing book to read. But still very thought-provoking. I'm glad I read it.

Hop along to another stop on this blog tour by visiting the main list at Stirrup Queens ( You can also sign up for the next book on this online book club: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant.


  1. Loribeth...I always love reading your reviews of the BBBB picks. You have such in depth, thought provoking answers.

  2. "Most people will automatically tell you that it's their children who give their lives meaning and purpose. Those of us who are childless have to find meaning in other places. Sometimes, that can be tough."

    You had many, many, things you said in this post that really hit me. All very thought provoking. But this one really resonated. Not being able to follow the "normal" path in life, where do you turn to? What has any purpose? I suppose it can be argued for the characters that they clung to the purpose given to them, to donate, since the obvious natural choice (reproduction) was taken away from them. Maybe. But, did they ever know any other purpose. Maybe purpose in life is all about what we're told by society to accept... but, my mind then turns to Kathy, alone in the dorm dancing to that song, with her pillow baby in her arms. Did she know then? Is it innate within us.

    Ah, and now I am going off on tangents.

  3. okay - I just skipped to the comments section. It's on the list, but won't be read until likely this summer. will definitely circle back when I'm done reading.

  4. I skipped to the comments too so I am curious do you recommend it or not so much??? I need a new one to read in order to keep up my NYE resolutions:) Drop me a quick note and let me know what you think of the book without the spoilers, (if you have a second, that is;)), thanks!

  5. Spoilers or not, I think I have to read this book. Your comments about the disintegration of relationships touched me, I struggle a lot with that in the wake of Sam's death. It was something I never saw coming and am still left trying to negotiate.

  6. i think it's easy to be passive until something affects your life and i think that the kids weren't affected until their relationship later in life which seemed to make them try to find out if the deferel was even possible. They're still human after all. :)

    I have to admit that I'm the same way. Until something affects me in my small, small world i'm pretty passive about it. So I could actually relate to the characters in that sense.

  7. I enjoyed many of your thoughts and comments on this book. (Didn't read it - wanted to, but book tours have just been too much to do in addition to everything else lately - nice to be able to read reviews though!)

    I agree with you on the designer babies. Babies being born with a "job" (and only for a specific purpose!) - what a burden to place on a human being.

    Excellent review.

  8. You mention running away as a way to escape their fate, but it's not the only possible escape. What about ruining your body so that it's unfit for donation? Wouldn't be hard to smoke, drink, consume all sorts of drugs. Find an infected partner and contract and STD. All of the things they were warned against.

    Of course, none of that would ever occur to them, just as running away doesn't. Perhaps that's as apt a definition of passivity as any -- failing to flail around for an out.

  9. You weren't supposed to cheat!

    "It could be argued that many people (only in the fertile world, of course...!) drift into parenthood this way -- because having kids is just what you do when you grow up & get married -- without really considering whether they are truly willing or ready to do the hard work that's involved."

    I think that quote above is so incredibly true. There are people who make choices consciously, and those who make them because they seem like the next thing to do (I mean, how many people took a step back and thought about not applying to college after high school?).

    I also cried hard with this book.