The 21st Century/2000's
I really enjoyed this, though I'm not usually a fan of short novels. This one packed a punch.
The novel is set in a dystopian society where thousands of human clones are being produced solely to exist as organ doners. Upon reaching adulthood, they become carers for other clones that are already donating until they receive their own notice. They then donate all their major organs until their "fourth" set which "completes" them, the euphemism used in the novel and by the clones themselves to mean death. The novel is narrated by one of the clones and focuses on her and her friends and their time at "Hailsham", which is one of the few 'humane' boarding schools for clones. It is implied that most clones are treated badly or institutionalised until their time comes.
Ishiguro isn't one for brow beating his message. He simply lets the story unfold, and so the reader DOES have to think. We are given a narrator who innocently misinterprets or misses the point of most of her experiences, so we have to question everything she says. There is more said in the gaps and the silences than in the stories/experiences Kath tells herself.
This REALLY works though. There is a particular incident Kath tells, solely to explain her relationship with Ruth, one of her best friends. Ruth implies a pencil case she bought was actually given to her by one of the "Guardians". Kath calls her out on it but feels terrible when Ruth is obviously (though hiding it) crushed. On one level the memory is shared by Kath to reveal what it was like to be at Hailsham, but as a reader we realise that Ruth's desire to imply she had a close or affecionate link with her "guardian" (effectively a teacher equivalent) is really a result of a very "human" need for parental affection. These clones, with no parents, no relatives and just each other, still FEEL how we do.
And this is just one of the points the novel brings up. What does it mean to be human? Would humanity stoop to this level in the face of being able to eradicate cancer and other diseases as a serious threat to our lives?
Throughout the novel runs one particular thread - despite the fact their lives will be cut short by their donations, Hailsham takes particular interest in developing their creativity and fostering a love of art. Kath and her friends never quite figure out why once they start questioning this (though the reader will have already guessed), and their conclusion and its innocence at the end of the novel is quite harrowing in the face of the truth.
The novel also works very well as an allegory for our treatment of animals, particularly factory farming. The treatment of the clones is very similar - they are de-individualised (or de-humanised in their case) and victims of society's denial of what is essentially systematic murder. Society's belief that neither the clones nor animals have "souls" (or emotions) and therefore are at the mercy of human WANTS is at the heart of the novel.
The characterisation can take some getting used to - as the narrator (kath) is very simple and we cannot trust her interpretations of the others or the events. The supporting characters of Tommy and Ruth are seen through her eyes as well, so we get limited insight on their true personalities. At first I thought the novel would have hit much harder if the characters were essentially more HUMAN, but this actually intensifies the novel's themes, because part of the problem is our insistence on only valuing other species and other people that reflect us and act like us. It is our treatment of those that are different that tests humanity.
Score - 8.5/10
Similar to: 1984, Brave New World
Recommended - Yes