Why Never Let Me Go is a Dreadful Gift Idea
By Merve Pehlivan
The only time I’ve received anything that said “I love you” on it was a red, heart-shaped pillow with Seni Seviyorum embroidered on it. It was a gift from my Qur’an tutor for my twelfth birthday. She was helping me memorize the six-page sura Ya’seen, which I needed because my father had promised to buy me a computer if I recited it to him. My tutor, two years my senior, was politely fired when my mother found out that we spent most of our time together playing Lion King on my Game Boy.
I’ve never seen her again and couldn’t recite the Ya’seen to my father because an earthquake happened in August and I forgot the two-and-a-half pages I’d memorized. I kept the pillow though. I didn’t exactly love it because only boys were supposed to buy hearts and other Seni Seviyorum things for you and I didn’t know any boys in the neighborhood or at my girls-only middle school. I tucked the pillow inside my wardrobe and later showed it to Ceyda, the blond-haired, green-eyed girl in the next building who was going to a mixed school. I said that I found it at the door on Valentine’s Day with an anonymous note for me. She squeezed the pillow as if it was a squeaky toy and said: “Nothing useful. No wonder why he’s too embarrassed to show himself.”
I spent my teens without any real gifts from boys, save for a finger-sized chocolate bar by Yaman who I had a crush on at ninth grade. He had just come back from visiting his aunt in Germany and distributed chocolate to all thirty-two of us in the classroom. I wanted to take mine home and save it forever, but not eating it while everybody else did would either spur nasty rumors about being on a diet, or worse, being in love with Yaman. With the first bite I realized that the chocolate was filled with gooey caramel, which I hate.
I started seeing boys in my twenties but I was unable to have a boyfriend anywhere near Valentine’s Day: my relationships ending just before or beginning only after. Or in more difficult cases, I’d start dating someone in late January and we would both pretend that February fourteenth was wiped off the calendar, tacitly agreeing that any related gesture would be too much, too early. By the time I hit thirty, I had already given up on any Valentine fantasies. I had also managed to convince myself that it was nothing but a capitalist trap, judging all the red roses and glitter hearts bursting from every corner in town prime examples of kitsch, and people who respond to them conformists who had nothing better to do with their lives. When I started dating my boyfriend in January two years ago, part of me felt too cool to ever bother with the capitalist trap, but another part of me was curious. On a Sunday, we met for drinks and later joined a friend at a bar. She sent me a wink and joked to my boyfriend: “What did you buy for her?” I knew what time of the year that was, and had wondered if he was one of those romantic types. He was flabbergasted.
“What do you mean?” he asked her.
“Today is Valentine’s Day, don’t you know?” He really didn’t.
“Oh, no I don’t. If I’d known, I’d spend the day in bed looking at the ceiling.”
The second February fourteenth in our relationship also coincided with a rendezvous. I now had a better grasp of his sense of humor and I thought we would drop witty remarks about the whole fuss around the occasion, think of ourselves superior to lovers locking eyes, and hands above candle-lit restaurant tables, and forget about it immediately. We met up at a café, and while searching his pen to practice Turkish with me; he found something in his bag.
“By the way, I have a gift for you.”
It was a book wrapped inside a plastic sheet protector. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I wondered whether the title was a message for me, and I have to admit, it warmed my heart.
“I wasn’t expecting this,” I said, staring at the cover that showed two children running on a pier.
“Me neither. My boss was really stressed out about buying his girlfriend a gift and asked me if I got anything for you. I said I didn’t and it made me feel a little bad.”
I had never heard of the author and judging by his name, I thought it was about Japan.
“It’s one of my favorite books, I thought you might like it too.”
I naturally had nothing to give him in return, and seeing what the book did to me, I am content that I didn’t.
I must have started reading Never Let Me Go around springtime because I remember having it on my lap with my legs stretched above the railings of my balcony, and later, at the terrace of an espresso bar in my neighborhood. After I'd read the first few chapters, I texted the boyfriend: “These kids are sick!” I didn’t yet know if they really were, but there seemed to be something wrong about the characters in the novel that hooked you early on.
Until the mystery surrounding the fate of children at Hailsham resolves and as the narrative unfolds, the reader is given time to speculate. Hailsham is a special school where students have minimal contact with the outside world, smoking is considered the one big evil they must avoid at all costs and they are encouraged to produce artwork. A lady whom everybody calls Madame pays regular visits to the school to select and take the best works. What happens to those pieces or eventually to the children who produce them, nobody knows.
That is, until the very end of the book. I had about seventy pages remaining before I left the espresso bar to attend a yoga class a few blocks down the street. If I had time to finish, I wouldn’t have made it to the class. I left yoga, came home, sat by my desk lamp and read the rest, wiping my eyes when tears blurred my sight. When I closed the book, I started to cry loudly and recorded a voice message to send the boyfriend, snot dripping inside my mouth.
“What did you do to me? This breaks my heart; no book has ever made me feel so sad like this.”
It took me a couple of days to recover from the emotional weight the book dropped onto me and I felt reluctant to start a new one right away, out of a desire to let the pleasure of the last one linger and a juvenile belief that no book will ever have the same effect on me again. Never Let Me Go is narrated in first person by Kathy, who is thirty-one at the beginning of the story. She tells us right away that she is a “carer” and that she looks after “donors,” roles vague enough to kindle the reader’s curiosity. Kathy then goes on to talk about her childhood at Hailsham, her friendship with Ruth and Tommy, her obsession with one of the teachers, Miss Lucy. They are told at Hailsham that “they are very special students.” What exactly makes them special and how they feel about it seeps into the minds and behaviors of the characters who grow up to be otherwise normal teenagers with usual teenage concerns.
The power of Ishiguro’s story-telling lies in the fact that he tackles an essentially gut-wrenching theme--parentless children destined for an inescapable end that is nigh--with little to no mawkish descriptions, dramatic scenes, or tirades. Instead, he draws the reader close to the characters by portraying them as children in their artless innocence, moving into teens during which they develop a complex relationship with hope and the way they bond with each other. These “special kids” who increasingly look distinct from other human beings have an awareness of their condition, yet they soberly try to find a way out, relying on speculation and optimism. They are not powerful in a contrived way, but vulnerable without being weak and resigned. The reader sees through their efforts and feels sorry for them, hopes with them and wants them to break down whatever system that confines their lives, but is always left with a feeling of darkness and melancholy that runs throughout.
The night I finished the book, not long after I sent my boyfriend the voice message, he replied with an email: “I know. It’s gutting isn’t it? If it makes you feel better, when I read that book, a single man-tear was shed.”
It didn’t make me feel better. My tears were pouring out in gallons.
You can buy Never Let Me Go here.
Merve is a writer, translator and interpreter based in Istanbul. She is also the host and founder of Spoken Word Istanbul and Spoken Word Turkçe, which you can find out more about: @SpokenWordIstanbul