The Situation: Kathy, who is now a carer, is reflecting back on her time at Hailsham, a sort of boarding school in England. At the center of her stories and memories of Hailsham are Ruth and Tommy. Ruth is often the very definition of a frenemy, but there are some good memories of her too. Tommy was initially a somewhat hot-headed kid prone to outbursts, tantrums, and subsequently, relentless teasing. He would eventually calm down and make many friends, and even gain Ruth as a girlfriend. The relationship between Kathy and Ruth is already fairly tenuous, despite them being supposed best friends, and it is this new relationship between Ruth and Tommy that would really put things on edge.
The Problem: Navigating social situations at Hailsham is enough of a challenge, but the kids must also study to keep up their grades, and also produce works of art (paintings, sculptures, poems, etc.) for the seasonal exchange. The best of these creations end up in a mysterious gallery that none of the students have ever seen, and that no one at Hailsham even talks about. Something else no one talks about is how these students are ultimately raised up to be donors for the rest of the population. As Kathy is reflecting back on her days at Hailsham, she is in her eleventh year as a carer, knowing eventually that will be brought to an end and she will become a donor. Some become a donor sooner than that, but all do eventually. For people like Kathy, living a normal life as we know it is not an option.
Genre, Themes, History: I am inclined to think of this book as science fiction. Although, if I am honest, it really isn't completely outside of the realm of possibility. While there is a much bigger story going on regarding Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy's futures as carers and donors, the story at the very front of the novel is the students' lives at Hailsham and how they interact with each other. Kathy is a typical girl, trying to make friends, do her schoolwork, and live her life. Ruth does what she can to assert herself as the leader of their little group. All attention must be on her, and not only does she project herself as special, but she must be the only special one. Anyone who threatens this little setup and reveals it as anything else is belittled by Ruth and cast aside. With a friend like her, who needs enemies? And Tommy is more or less a typical boy, playing sports and living his life, while trying to figure out what is really going on at Hailsham and what the future holds for all of them. It is a novel with a slow build and slow reveal. All of the details of the situation aren't revealed immediately. And only as Kathy keeps remembering things and telling stories is her full situation clearly realized. Given the amount of secrecy she was used to enduring at Hailsham, it makes sense for Kathy to tell the story this way.
My Verdict: As I said, this book has a slow build, but it is worth sticking with it until the end. The more Kathy tells of her story, the more the reader understands about her situation, and about how ultimately horrifying it is. Unfortunately for Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy, each secret that she reveals is more heartbreaking than the last. And Ruth's attitude and actions make an already tough situation even more unnecessarily difficult. There were times when I felt that Kathy was a little too naive, even as an adult. And some of the dialogue didn't ring true. But overall, this is a compelling story, and I am excited to check out other novels by Ishiguro.
Favorite Moment: When Kathy catches Ruth in a lie, without coming out and saying it and actually embarrassing her friend.
Favorite Character: I would say Kathy, but there were times when she was just too naive and gullible for me, so instead I will pick Tommy. At the beginning he is that kid who would throw chairs in the classroom while having a tantrum over a little thing. But he ends up being a smart and curious adult capable of many things that he didn't get to show at Hailsham.
Recommended Reading: I recommend On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee. It is another story with a different take on what the future will be like, and how one portion of society could potentially be used purely to support another.