In the first page, the first paragraph, we learn that there are “carers” and “donors”, but are not told what it means. There are pretty strong hints, though. We go on to hear Kathy, a carer in her 30s, tell about growing up in a boarding school in the countryside, and about her friendships with Ruth and Tommy. There are more hints that something is special about the children there, but not what. The meaning of “donors” is revealed a third of the way into the book, but we have to wait even longer to find out the real reason why the children are different, and how they are used.
The scary thing is uncovered so gradually that its full impact isn’t felt. Only in the end do you realise how scary that thing is that no one has mentioned out loud. It’s a spooky book, similar to A Handmaid’s Tale in feeling.
Throughout her childhood Kathy herself wonders about what is going on, but with no real urgency. Because we hear the story from her, we only know what she knows and what she finds important. That which is obvious to her when she is adult, is not revealed, but has to be read between the lines. The big picture is kept hidden; small things are shown with great detail.
Kathy and the other children never leave the school grounds while they are there. Neither does the story, and we learn almost nothing about the wider world. Instead Kathy tells about the children’s social life – the usual childhood cliques and conflicts, discovering relationships and sex. Kathy’s relationships with Tommy and Ruth occupy centre stage.
And when the children leave school, they remain / are kept apart from the world, looking at it with fascination but without understanding. For some strange reason they never try to get closer to it even then.
Perhaps it is because they never quite grow up. As their childhood is spent in a very small and confined world, exposed only to what their guardians allow and with very little interaction with other adults, they and their relationships remain childish. So does their motivation: being good, doing what you’re supposed to, comes naturally to them even to the very end. It almost goes too far: Kathy and the others seem placid, tepid. They almost appear unaware of the horror of their lives and what is done to them. No one questions their fate, rebels, or tries to run away. Is it all because they are afraid to find out too much? I found this rather unsatisfying.
This lack of life is also apparent in how Kathy tells her story. The reviewer in Slate (warning for plot spoilers!) observes:
The reluctance of Kathy H. and her pals to really confront what awaits them may account for the curious lack of physicality of Kathy’s descriptions of their life. Nobody eats anything much in this book, nobody smells anything. We don’t know much about what the main characters look like. Even the sex is oddly bloodless. But landscapes, buildings, and the weather are intensely present. It’s as if Kathy has invested a lot of her sense of self in things quite far away from her own body, and thus less likely to be injured.
The book is well-written and interesting, and I enjoyed reading it, but it ends up being vaguely unsatisfying. I found the foggy approach to storytelling kind of gimmicky: self-consciously clever, and a bit too clever for its own good. And the premise upon which it is all built does not really work; it is implausible, no matter how much one wants to make sense of it for the sake of the good writing.
And why, oh why do all reviews have to reveal so much of the plot? Here’s a particularly egregious example (from The Economist) – don’t read it if you haven’t read the book but plan to. The reviewer seems to be completely unaware of what s/he is doing:
As Kathy says: “I can see we were just at that age when we knew a few things about ourselves – about who we were, how we were different from our guardians, from the people outside – but hadn’t yet understood what any of it meant.”
For a long time, the reader feels the same confusion. And then, about halfway through the book, the truth begins to dawn.
And then, wham! the reviewer continues to tell us that important truth in its entirety, leaving the reader no chance to discover it halfway through the book. Argh.