Non-spoiler review: Brutal speculative fiction that unravels a mystery in a medically advanced future while following the lives and recollections of three boarding school students.
The rest of this review is full of spoilers.
So, the story is told by Kathy and is full of her recollections of being a Hailsham student along with Ruth and Tommy (whose lives we also follow). Kathy is a caretaker for donors. Caretakers themselves always become donors after they are caretakers for awhile. You spend the first however many pages hearing about Kathy driving from one recovery center to another, looking after her donors, and remembering what it was like being a Hailsham student, thinking to yourself, “What are they donating? They’re not donating what I think they’re donating, are they? And, they all went to the same school so… is this a book about raising people specifically so that they can be organ donors? What did I get myself into?” And, that is eventually what is revealed. It was a lot horrifying how relaxed and accepting and blasé everyone in the book was about this. It was mind-blowing, in fact. I realized, at some point, that this might be because the caretakers and donors seem to have almost no interaction with other people and they are raised knowing exactly what is going to happen. This is their trajectory, their lives. They have no reason to expect otherwise. This isn’t a love story about people from two different groups coming together to disrupt an unfair society. This is the story of two people from one group destined to die for the benefit of others who just want a little more time with each other.
Aside from the teachers at the school, one of whom are very adamant that the students aren’t be told enough about what will happen to them, there are no (from my recollection) named characters who aren’t themselves donors. Maybe the caretaker of the house that they lived in between school and becoming caretakers had a name. If he did, I don’t remember, though. The teachers at Hailsham spend a lot of time teaching the students humanities subjects and getting them to engage in art and creation because they have a broader outside goal of proving the humanity of the children to the outside world. (A world that has already decided that raising this children to be organ donors is worth the cost of their lives for the benefit of society.)
A large part of the book is Kathy and Tommy trying to get in touch with someone from their old school because they’ve heard that if you are in love, and can really prove you are in love, that you can get a deferral on donations to live a little of your lives together. It is so touching how pure and naive that is. The school has been closed, though, so there is some difficulty in finding their old headmaster.
There are some heartbreaking detours. Kathy, Tommy, and a couple of others, help Ruth find a woman who looks like her (and who may have been the source for her). This woman works in an office and that is Ruth’s dream job. There are other donors who were at other schools who hear that kids from Hailsham are special and I want to hear what it was like. So, horrifyingly, we’re only being told the best parts of this world. Some of the children raised to be donors get to live some of their lives as people. While we never are told stories from other schools, the implication is that many other places they’re treated like animals.
This was well-written. The prose was great. And, that made it even more horrifying to think about the subject matter. So, I would recommend it, but go into it knowing that is DARK and the ending will not make you feel better about humanity.