The Jambar Column: ‘Never Let Me Go,’ a story I’ll hold onto

By Henry Shorr

As an avid reader and semi-fresh Youngstown State University student, I was over the moon to discover the YSU Book Club. I was in a reading slump, so I did what I usually do when I can’t decide on a new book: I cracked open “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman for my yearly reread. That’s when I found the YSU Book Club Instagram page. It was this club that led me to what is now one of my favorite books.

My friend Ben, a high school English teacher in Columbus, gave me a copy of “Never Let Me Go” a year or two before the pandemic started. He told me it was his favorite novel, and I told him I couldn’t wait to read it. But life got in the way, and the book sat on my bookshelf and I forgot about it.

I can’t believe I waited this long.

“Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro is a down-to-earth science-fiction novel that asks the question, “What if we invented cloning instead of splitting the atom?” The story follows three clones — or students, as they’re referred to in the book — Kathy, Ruth and Tommy on their journey from schoolchildren, to adolescents and all the way to adults whose purpose in life is to donate their organs to “real” people. 

The beginning of the story revolves around Hailsham, a boarding school built to raise the clones. They are overseen by “guardians” who act as a mix of teachers and parents, and they are compelled to create works of art to be displayed in “the gallery.”

As they age out of Hailsham and meet other students, more human problems enter their lives. Relationships start and end, there are times of introspection and the former students start to plan for their futures, knowing fully that their futures are all but decided for them.

Regardless of the tone of hopelessness in the last section of the book, the narrative is still pocked with scars of optimism. It felt as if Ishiguro were wrenching a knife deeper into my side as I tore through the pages, needing to understand how these people could remain so hopeful in the situation they were in.

I get it, though. We can’t let crises dictate our lives. On a macro-level, I am reminded of the saying, “You don’t notice a loaded gun to your head if it’s there when you are born.” I have always heard this in reference to nuclear war. That sword of Damocles has been hanging over our heads for our entire lives and even though I see the rope fraying, it’s not like I can shut down because of it.

Similarly, these students chose to live their fullest lives — experiencing love, friendship, pain and heartbreak — even though they know exactly what is in store for them at their moment of “completion.”

This book is so intrinsically sad; you know where the story is going to end as soon as you understand the premise. It is also, however, powerfully human. Who among us cannot relate to coming to grips with our “purpose” in this world? What does it mean to actually be a “real person?” What gives us our worth in life?  In that vein, the story is incredibly relatable, timely and compelling. 

I cannot recommend this novel enough. You will forget you’re reading a science fiction story because it is so grounded. You will need to take some breaks, as I cannot understate how truly sorrowful parts of this book are. You may need to read it twice — I did. But I’m unsure I’ve had a conversation with someone who has read this book and hasn’t come out grateful that they’ve taken the time to get through it.

If you’re interested in reading more — which is always a good thing — find me on campus; I’ve always got recommendations. Or join the YSU book club; those folks know what’s up.