And Now for a Totally Different Boarding School Book
It's probably wrong to call Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro a boarding school book. But since I read it just before reading Looking for Alaska, I couldn't help comparing them.
In Never Let Me Go, thirty-one-year-old Kathy H. recalls her childhood and adolescence at a boarding school called Hailsham. (Note: when adolescence is recalled by an adult narrator, the book is almost always an adult book; when adolescence is being described while it's being lived by an adolescent narrator, the book is usually a YA novel.) This is not a run-of-the-mill teen-angst story, though Kathy and her friends certainly have something to angst about. They are clones. Got that? Clones! Now that's something you don't see every day in boarding school stories. What's more, these clones were created for one reason and one reason alone--to donate their vital organs to others.
Kathy's narration is a little slow and plodding, but that's her. She is a fully realized character and part of her personality is her need to recall every little detail of her life. Because she and her kind have no families, no future, and not much of a present, going over and over their past at school is an important part of all their lives. Boarding school isn't just a setting for this book. Boarding school is hugely significant because it was the happiest time of these characters' lives.
There are none of the stereotypes of teen boarding school books in Never Let Me Go. No drinking or smoking or drugs to mark characters as dangerous or cool. No teens dying to give young readers lessons about death. No discussion of great works of literature or philosophy to indicate how intelligent the characters are. No talk of religion so that we know this is a really deep book. What is happening to these people is so huge and intense that none of those plot devices are necessary.
When I finished Never Let Me Go I didn't feel that I just finished a book I'd already read a half a dozen times before. And I'll admit that the last few sentences brought forth a tear or two for these characters who were almost totally accepting of their places in the world. (Can you believe it?)
Now I've spent a lot of time talking about an adult book at a blog that's dedicated to kids' literature. However, we're still living in a technically free country and at most libraries you can still read what you want. That means serious teen readers can consider skipping the same-old, same-old private school stories shelved in the YA section and giving Never Let Me Go a shot.