One of the great things this book has to offer is the experience of slowly discovering what's really going on in the characters' world. Even though there's no big revelation; when the facts come out, you'll realize you knew all along--like the characters, the reader is "told and not told." But the book is near-impossible to review without making explicit those elements that are best discovered while reading it. So, be warned: there be spoilers ahead! (Here and in virtually every other review.)
Most of this book consists of the narrator, Kathy, ruminating on her life. She grew up at Hailsham, an institution similar to a boarding school--except that the children never leave the grounds, never have visitors, and have meaningful connections only with one another. She recounts the details of her life and her relationships with her friends, with the smallest incidents taking on profound significance in her mind. It's both reminiscient of the enormous importance most of us put on relationships with peers as children and teenagers, and rather obsessive, since the students have no one else in their lives. After some thought, though, I think Ishiguro does a fantastic job with this portrayal of childhood: the group's cliques and its mythology and private vocabulary and in-jokes and its intense pressure to conform. But there's also something eerie and unusual about these kids' instinctive self-censorship, which is probably intentional.
At any rate, I found it to be a compelling and disquieting book. The contrast between Kathy's chatty, matter-of-fact narration about the mundane events of her life and the ugly truths in the background drives much of that eerieness. It's a very well-written, believable story that just sucked me in (or should I say, it would not let me go). And it's likely to leave you a bit depressed and thoughtful for awhile afterwards.
I do have some issues with it, though. It's true that every dystopian book is, to some extent, unrealistic and manipulative--that's practically the point--and I do like dystopian fiction. So my biggest problem isn't with the little issues around how the premise is developed, although there are some of those. Like, how does Kathy manage to spend 13 years of her adult life out in the world driving all over and yet fail to learn basic facts that are common knowledge? And there's that frequently asked question, why no one tries to rebel or run away. (I can see both sides of that one. Because most people do submit to authority, tyrannical as it may be--but then, not everyone, and certainly not when there are no control mechanisms in place like the threat of punishment to enforce conformity.)
No, my real issue is with the premise itself: just what is the author trying to say? Because organ transplants have been around for awhile now, without governments running amok and breeding kids just to murder them for their organs. Perhaps it could happen, but on my worry list it's ranked somewhere down there with Canada invading the U.S., a terrorist flying a plane into my house, and the government forcing kids to fight to the death on national TV--which is to say, while theoretically possible, this book isn't playing on what I'd consider credible fears. (Contrast, for instance, Hillary Jordan's When She Woke, a dystopia premised on the religious right wing taking over American politics--something I find both scary and plausible.) Is it meant to be a polemic against stem cell research (which makes sense only if you view human adults as a sensible metaphor for human embryos)? Or perhaps against cloning? But there's no reason people would treat people as less than human because they'd been cloned, any more than you'd treat someone badly because they're an identical twin or because they were conceived through artificial insemination. (Or at least, as that's my view, I just can't get worked up about cloning. Your mileage may vary. It's starting to sound like I may just not be conservative enough to identify with this premise.)
So in the end, the way I understand this book is by viewing the premise more broadly--as a polemic against exploitation of others for our own gain--and there it works well. We as a society don't much care about the lives of third-world workers who produce our cheap stuff, for instance, and we're more than willing to have animals bred to be slaughtered for food and raised in terrible conditions. And the book raises the question of whether our half-measures--trying to improve the lives of disadvantaged people in various ways, without addressing the underlying problems--are meaningful, or just ways of making us feel better about ourselves. So I do think it raises worthwhile and interesting issues--but more so when it's taken as an extended metaphor than when it's taken at its word.