I would never have read this book based on the blurb, which actually tells you very little or, rather, implies that it is quite a different kind of book. I won’t even give it a sub-genre because that would give away too much.
This is the problem with reviewing this book: it’s very important, if you do read it, that you know next to nothing about what it’s about before you do. I didn’t, and it was a revelation. If you do know something, it’s just going to be dull and slow and disappointing. So for people who want to read it, or who are persuadable by my amazing reviews (ha!), I will try to give this book justice without spoiling it. For everyone else, there’s always the cut.
This story is told by Kathy, but it’s not just Kathy’s story. She’s been a carer for 12 years but soon she’ll be able to stop. Perhaps it’s this that causes her to reminisce, to think back to the days when she was growing up with her friends Ruth and Tommy at Hailsham, a kind of isolated boarding school in the English countryside. She recounts a childhood both typical and familiar, alien and mysterious. Although there are hints that something isn’t quite right, that these children are “special”, it isn’t until page 73 that it’s put more clearly into words.
It’s this sense of secrecy and mystery that keeps you reading, that adds an element of tension to an otherwise seemingly idyllic childhood. Even after you have more of an idea of what’s going on, you’re still waiting, reading with a sense of urgency and earnestness and, even, fear. But I really can’t say more than that, and I fear I’ve said too much already – it’s more than I knew when I started reading it, and as I said, the less you know beforehand the better. You need to be as in-the-dark as Kathy and the others.
I wasn’t quite sure what was meant by “donors” and chose to wait to find out rather than guess and box myself in. I was also a bit slow – or, rather, hesitant – picking up on the dystopian features of this novel, mostly because the blurb gives away nothing and at the first mention of Kathy being a “carer” I immediately started thinking “oh great, this is going to be one of those depressive novels about Alzheimer’s or something”.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Kathy and her classmates were not born into this world. They are clones raised specifically to become “donors”: to donate their organs and their life away, bit by bit, until they “complete” – die, and give away everything. As you learn at the end of the book, this has been going on since after World War II – it’s an alternate reality, one where “normal” people pretend these clones have no soul.
Hailsham was different. The people in charge wanted to give the children a life and a happy childhood. In this they succeeded: Kathy’s memories, despite the usual fights among kids and other problems, are very rose-coloured. They knew they were being prepared to become carers, caring for donors, before becoming donors themselves. There’s a sense of – not fatalism, but acceptance. They’re innocent, and completely trusting. They don’t really understand what it means to be a donor, not like we would, but they accept their fate without a murmur of protest.
What Kathy’s story tells and reveals, is that these clones are just like you and me. They think like us, react like us, love and hate like us. Their spats and beliefs are familiar, yet at the same time there’s something not quite right – and that’s because we, the readers, have a better understanding of what’s going on than they do. We know what they’re giving up, what they’re sacrificing, what they’re forced to go through. The operations and the pain and then the death. These are people without parents – without even surnames – who live by a set of rules they never question, so thorough and successful is their brainwashing.
Yet even when Kathy and Tommy do learn more about it, they don’t fight it. They don’t “give in”, because they’ve never known anything different and never even considered trying to “escape” their fate. Being a donor is what they’ve prepared for their whole lives, all the medicals and healthy living and safe sex.
The story isn’t even about the donor program, it’s about friends growing up and having only each other, and holding onto each other through the good and the bad, knowing that if they let each other go they’ll have nothing, no one. Through all Kathy’s experiences is a steely edge of strength and determination. I found her a very familiar character – I’ve known plenty of Ruth’s in my time, and could sympathise with Kathy, who has a kind of pedantic need to set things straight and not let others, notably Ruth, make things up and embellish.
Because the story is told by Kathy, we know only what she knows, we feel what she feels, and yet we can see a bigger picture and yearn for something more for her. It’s a poignant tale, and a cautionary one too. It can be enjoyed as a story about growing up, but it can be analysed as a dystopian fable about the cost of survival, the price we expect others to pay for our own quest for immortality, and how bloody superior we are at heart. It tells us a lot about ourselves, and it ain’t pretty.
I really don’t want to ruin this one for you! Also, if you have already read it, I’d love to discuss it with you, but we should try to keep spoilers out of the comments too!