I read a review of the movie that just came out, and it sounded so interesting I thought I’d read the book first. This was an interesting book to read after Oryx and Crake, because both address the ethics of genetic engineering, only in very different ways. In fact, this was different from what I expected, because it had no science in it all. It’s really a story about friendship and love, but at the same time about whether it’s ethical to clone people and use them for parts.
The book is about three friends who grow up together at Hailsham, a rural English school. From the beginning you know that the lives of these characters are unusual. Kathy is a carer — she cares for donors, who have as many as four donations until they die. Kathy is thirty which is old for a carer. She tells us that caring is traumatic work but she’s good at it so “they” keep her at it. We know that Hailsham graduates are somehow special but it’s not clear why or how.
Hailsham is a rural English boarding school where Kathy and her friends Tommy and Ruth grow up. The students have no family and very little contact with the outside world but in every other way they have a good life. They are encouraged to take care of themselves physically, and at the same time they seem to receive a quality education.
There are at least two key differences between our world and theirs. One is they are encouraged to be highly artistic. In fact their artwork is regularly put on display, sold to the other students, and the best work is collected by one of the instructors (for some unknown purpose that the students wonder about). The second is they are taught about sex, taught that they won’t ever have children, and encouraged to explore sex physically with each other. In effect, they are taught that sex is a physical act that is unrelated to love and relationships.
As Tommy and Kathy grow older, they begin to question their existence – why do they make some of the instructors fearful, angry, or sad? Will they be able to love each other, or to have careers? What happens when they leave school? Does it matter that they won’t have children or won’t live much beyond the age of thirty?
Ishiguro spends a lot of time on the characters’ expectations and understanding of their function in life. The people in this book are bred, cared for, and for the most part treated honestly about why they are there. Humanity can almost say they are acting humanely, in the same way that we say if we breed animals for food, and treat them humanely (which we generally don’t, but let’s say we do), then there is no ethical problem — after all, they wouldn’t exist if we didn’t eat them, right?
But of course these are thinking, feeling human beings. They know very little about the lives of other humans, because that is kept from them, but they know enough to question whether they are entitled to better lives than these. They know their non-cloned counterparts are out in the world and fantasize about meeting them. I think that is the subtly frightening thing about this book. I also found it disturbing that these people are forced to care for each other as they die. In other words, only a few humans who are not clones (basically the instructors at the school) ever have to interact with the cloned humans, and they never have to watch them suffer and die.
I hope this doesn’t say too much about the book if you’re thinking about reading it. It’s an engaging, thoughtful read. Ultimately, it’s a book about the relationships of three people, but it’s also a book about the life they are born into.