For a long time, I resisted reading Never Let Me Go because somehow I thought that Ishiguro wouldn’t have been able to convincingly capture the voice of a female first-person character, especially to a such a high degree of psychological realism. This was especially as I hadn’t been too impressed with the way Ishiguro wrote Stevens in Remains of the Day.
Luckily, Ishiguro does a much more compelling job with this book. I actually wish I’d read it earlier, when I was of an age when its themes of growing up, nostalgia and reminiscence might have resonated more strongly with me.
The funny thing about Never Let Me Go is that it is a bona fide science fiction novel. It is set in an alternate version of Britain where clones are routinely created and reared for their organs, which are harvested from them for medical purposes. The narrative is told by Kathy H, one such clone, from her childhood in Hailsham, a boarding school for these clones, through to her teenage and adult years as a carer for her fellow clones as they undergo the organ donations that usher them to an early death.
Ishiguro does a masterful job with Kath’s characterization. Kath’s voice is compelling and convincing, and her descriptions of the lives of her and her fellow ‘students’ is highly evocative. Their worries and preoccupations as kids and later as teenagers ring with truth. The memories that they create of Hailsham, and the associations with people and places that inhabit that setting, are intensely relatable and sympathetic.
Kath’s relationship dynamics with the clones closest to her – Ruth and Tommy – are the emotional core of the book. Ishiguro’s Kath is a wonderfully introspective narrator, and her reflections on the interactions that she has with her friends are rich in psychological authenticity. Ishiguro has a very profound understanding of the cadences of human relationships, how they ebb and flow, and of the neuroses and insecurities of human beings.
Ishiguro is also great at creating vignettes of moments of emotionally powerful imagery. The one that strikes me most is that of the school administrator weeping as she peeks in on Kath dancing to an old cassette of Judy Bridgewater’s Never Let Me Go, clutching a pillow to her chest as if refusing to let go of her imaginary baby.
The fact that Ishiguro has painted such a compelling and human picture of Kath and her friends is crucially important to the story, because it gives authenticity to one of the central tensions of the book – the uncertainty of the public of this alternate history Britain as to whether these clones are human – have souls. Clones are harvested for their organs in this society, and the only moral defense for such an act is to pretend that clones are somehow less than human. The sheer humanity demonstrated by Kath and her fellow students belies that notion, and makes this alternate society seem even more reprehensible in turn.
But Kath and her compatriots do differ, psychologically, from “normal” people in one crucial respect: their attitude towards their eventual fate – of an early death through donations – is that of fatalistic, passive resignation. Kath and her fellow students are not afraid of their early deaths. They don’t offer resistance or anger to the notion that their lives will be cruelly curtailed just because they are needed for their organs. Their only reaction is a gentle and melancholic regret that their early mortality will prevent them from living out their lives in the way they would have liked.
Kath and Co’s passive attitude towards the way of things is especially disquieting when compared to the psychological realism they display in other aspects of their personality. The book doesn’t carry obvious hints as to why this might be the case. But that aspect of theirs signifies their crucial difference from baseline human stock – their diffidence, their submission to authority – which actually also emerges during Kath’s recollections of their childhood days being taken care of by their guardians. Is that docile streak programmed into them? Is that why normal humans regard them with “revulsion”? The book never quite explains, but there are hints that there is a difference between clones and people, and those differences, while subtle, color the ways in which this alternate society sees them.
Admittedly, this renders the science-fiction side of things rather half-baked. Ishiguro never really interrogates the roots of how a society that sustains itself on the wanton sacrifice of cloned people could be morally sustainable. There are too many uncertainties that Kath does not explain in this vision of alternate Britain, that are left for the reader to fill in.
But I think Ishiguro’s portrayal of the clones as fatalistic is meant to play up a more significant theme – that of mortality and how people deal with it. Unlike normal people, the clones are constantly aware of their mortality and they are stoically resigned to it. Like us, Kath and her fellow clones deal with that in several ways – they often wax nostalgic about their more idyllic childhood days at Hailsham, or try to live moment to moment, taking what they can as it comes. Kath does both, but she has to deal with facing the mortality of others too – her friends, her school, her childhood. Hers is a loss more keen than others, because, as the sole survivor of her circle of friends, she needs to cope with the memories of what she had before but has now lost.
As such, Never Let Me Go reads like Kath’s elegiac missive to the ephemerality of life, her way of sharing with us the keenness of her loss through showing us the fullness of the tapestry of their lives; a story laced through with nostalgia, little joys, and regrets. It’s cathartic, in the sense that it galvanizes us, the readers, to perhaps live and love a little better, a little fuller, in the way Kath and Ruth and Tommy were unable to in the brief span of their beautiful but truncated lives.
I give this book: 4.5 out of 5 tapes