First things first: there is no way to avoid revealing the premise of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro’s. It is a brutal premise, although what this premise is isn’t even mentioned until half-way through the book. The silence on this point is telling. The characters live lives where they become obsessed with playground fantasies, rumours and myths, day tripping and culture, all the while failing to truly grasp what they are and what that ultimately means.
It is through euphemisms and unintended remarks that we start to realise the awful truth. The novel opens in England in the late 1990s. Kathy H, the narrator, is 31 years old and a ‘carer’, apparently quite a good one. She tells us, rather ingenuously, that her ‘donors’ (of what is never made clear), ‘have always tended to do much better than expected’, and that ‘hardly any of them have been classified as ‘agitated’’. On long journeys travelling around the country, visiting various ‘recovery centres’, she has now started to look back on her adolescence years spent with her two closest friends, Tommy and Ruth, at Hailsham.
At first Hailsham seems to be the image of the idyllic privileged English boarding school. When Kathy recalls the English country house – sport pavilion and all – the place appears to shine in the eternal summer glow that often pervades childhood memories. However, discordant notes soon start to be struck. The children are looked after by ‘guardians’, they attend weekly medical screenings, and they dare not approach the woods around the school. Most oddly of all, the school constantly engages the children in art projects. A student’s worth is inextricably tied to the quality of what they produce to such an extent that Tommy, the best at football, is bullied for not being creative.
Slowly we come to suspect the truth before we are ever explicitly told. The pupils of this school are being reared in isolation and innocence for their terrible post-graduate destiny. At some point after they leave Hailsham they will become donors. The donations will be drawn out and painful, and at some point after their donations they will ‘complete’.
This set-up of clones, carers and donors is pure dystopian fiction, but this is not what Ishiguro is interested in. The characters do not run away or fight; in fact, they appear to accept their fates placidly, and even embrace them. No debate is set-up about the ethics of reproductive technologies or the exploitation of ‘others’ for the sake of our own well-being. Like Ishiguro’s other novels, he has here contrived a set-up (and, yes, it is contrived) which allows him to explore the human self. What he seems interested in is something more human; once we have stripped away all the baggage of most of our lives – families, work, our own status as ‘people’ – how do we make a life?
Ishiguro is an author that raises questions rather than answering them. The novel does not offer a moral position, and nor can it be read as simply parabolic. We have been told, and not told, what death means, but how can anyone really understand? What the novel seems to be about repressing what we know, which is that is that mortality is inevitable, and life and people come to fail us. As the three characters leave Hailsham, they are left free to roam both intellectually and physically. At one level, this is funny and touching. They all stare in fascination at window of an ordinary office, and Ruth starts to dream about the joys of such a job. At another level, it is more bitter. They fall into the typical love triangle: Ruth become involved with Tommy, although she knows that Tommy is in love with Kathy, her best friend. Eventually the course of true love runs smooth but far too late. The years they could have had are already gone, and soon they will ‘complete’. A small betrayal leaves a wound that doesn’t have time to heal.
As readers, we’re going through these experiences with them. What Kathy doesn’t know, we can only guess at. Kathy may be the most honest of Ishiguro’s protagonists, but there are many secrets keepers in this novel, and even she does not want to explore and reveal all. The voice he has created for his narrator is a display of Ishiguro’s technical talents; he works out intricate ways of showing she’s intelligent, curiosity, but also that she is not extraordinary. She has the capacity to grow, and that is remarkable under the circumstances. In her he makes her a character we can sympathise with, although perhaps not altogether empathise.
Ishiguro’s writing is not in itself a thing of beauty, but there is a certain sort of gently haunting melancholy that pervades the book. The book is an intricately crafted work: thoughtful, crafting and finally disquieting. The story makes you want to go out and live more than any of the characters in the book. In truth, we probably accept our fates and our own psychological prisons just as passively as any of the characters.
Image: Thomas Hawk/Flickr (All creative commons)
Originally published 30th May, 2016