A review of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

But however present the moral question is in this story, it is never directly raised, and Ishiguro resists the urge to make it obvious. If these people are artistic and capable of love, is their tragedy any greater? If they don’t mind their role, is it any less horrible? It’s impossible for the reader to take anything other than the position of horrified spectator in this strange world, and the more you think about it, the broader the implications of the questions raised.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Never Let Me Go
By Kazuo Ishiguro
Faber & Faber
263pp, May 2006, $22.95

The narrator of Never Let Me Go Kathy H, is a thirty one year old carer in an alternative 1990s Britain. The plotline of the novel follows the fairly simple story of her recollection of a love triangle which began while she was a teenager at the exclusive but now defunct Hailsham House where she was schooled and, it would appear, raised. The story seems mundane enough at first. Girl loves longstanding male bestfriend, but subsumes her love when it becomes clear that her female best friend is also interested in the same boy. Kathy’s narrative is clean and matter of fact, full of the detail of day to day school day memories. The story of love lost and regained which drives the narrative forward is one which has been played out in love songs (like the fictional “Never Let Me Go” song which Kathy takes to) for as long as love songs have been written. But this is no ordinary coming of age story. Nor is it really about a love story, although the whole concept of love, and artistic power is one which sets off the sinister underlying elements of the story. It takes about 70 pages or so of hints before the reader is made aware that neither Kathy, nor her love interest Tommy or best friend Ruth are ‘like us’ — usual characters in the sense that the realistic matter-of-fact guise of this novel might indicate. What the reader finally becomes aware of, more or less concurrent with the narrator, is that the characters are clones, ‘created’ rather than born, solely for the sake of providing replacement parts for ‘humans,’ a ‘species’ to which these people clearly do not belong.

And yet, of course they are exactly like us. They hunger, desire, are moved by beauty and feel pain in exactly the same way. And of course however they may have come into being, they have all the same neuro-linguistic perceptions as anyone might. Somehow, and somewhere, one imagines a kind of parental set – the persons, scientists or whatever who have created them, and who has the responsibility for their existence. These missing characters form part of the novel’s setting – the backstory and backdrop which is never revealed. The gods which created Kathy, Tommy and Ruth are missing from the novel, along with any kind of reference for morality. Not quite missing however are those people after whom the clones are created—the “possibles” — and there is a kind of touching nostalgia of the sort that an adopted person might feel for his real but utterly inaccessible parents among the characters for their possible. In his usual delicate and understated way, Ishiguro creates an extraordinary tension between the many dichotomies in the setting of this story that begins to take priority over the love story as the novel moves forward. The first point of climax occurs when Kathy sees the head carer of Hailsham, “Madame,” crying in her doorway after witnessing her dancing with her pillow to an old tune, the “Never Let Me Go” of the title:

I froze in shock. Then within a second or two, I began to feel a new kind of alarm, because I could see there was something strange about the situation. The door was almost half open – it was a sort of rule we couldn’t close dorm doors except for when we were sleeping – by Madame hadn’t nearly come up to the threshold. She was out in the corridor, standing very still, her head angled to one side to give her a view of what I was doing inside. And the odd thing was she was crying. It might even have been one of her sobs that had come through the song to jerk me out of my dream. (71)

For the reader, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are simply characters, and it is Ishiguro’s skill as a writer that the dichotomy between their obvious humanness and the non-human nature of their roles begins to sit uncomfortably at the back of the reader’s head. The three characters’ growing self-awareness and sense of being different coupled with the learned inevitably of that difference becomes poignant when Ruth goes in search of her ‘possible.’ It is the closest any of them can get to their origins and so it is a powerful moment of loss and longing when the group of students suddenly sense the impossibility of ever striving to live the kind of lives they are longing for:

All the time, we could hear Ruth’s possible and the silver-haired lady talking on and on. They weren’t especially loud, but in that place, their voices seemed to fill the entire space. They were discussing some man they both knew, how he didn’t have a clue with his children. And as we kept listening to them, stealing the odd glance in their direction, bit by bit, something started to change. It did for me, and I could tell it was happening for the others.(160)

The philosophical questions around the ethics of this world, or the terrible use of what are clearly people in this way is hardly raised, with the very brief exception of a last ditch visit made by Kathy and Tommy, in an attempt to get ‘out of’ the donor program – based on a rumour circulated among the donors that anyone who demonstrated ‘true love’ might get let off. The lovers made their pilgrimage, and instead found some semblance of the horrible truth about their existence:

Suddenly there were all these new possibilities laid before us, all these ways to cure so many previously incurable conditions. This was what the world noticed the most, wanted the most. And for a long time, people preferred to believe these organs appeared from nowhere, or at most that they grew in a kind of vacuum.(257)

But however present the moral question is in this story, it is never directly raised, and Ishiguro resists the urge to make it obvious. If these people are artistic and capable of love, is their tragedy any greater? If they don’t mind their role, is it any less horrible? It’s impossible for the reader to take anything other than the position of horrified spectator in this strange world, and the more you think about it, the broader the implications of the questions raised. Because in many ways, this isn’t really a distopia about the horrors of organ donation, although there is a certain degree of discomfort at the notion of raising a species, or even animals, for such a utilitarian purposes. But of course the whole issue of technological progress and morality is one which is upon us now, when even faces can be transplanted, and when machines capable of thinking are just around the corner. The morality in this novel is pretty clear, but there are also hints that the book may be showing us more the similarities rather than the differences in the lives of these characters and those of the readers. After all, we are all going to die after a relatively short life of utilitarian work on behalf of someone else, and while we may have the consolations of family which the characters in Never Let Me Go don’t, the novel makes our own exertions on the hamster wheel seem almost as futile as Kathy’s. It’s a chilling notion that makes you want to go berserk just like Tommy:

‘I was thinking,’ I said, ‘about back then, at Hailsham, when you used to go bonkers like that, and we couldn’t understand it. We couldn’t understand how you could ever get like that. And I was just having this idea, just a thought really. I was thinking maybe the reason you used to get like that was because at some level you always knew” (270)

This is a powerful, expertly written novel which reads easily even as it leaves the reader deeply disturbed. The unanswered questions it raises about what it means to be a human, about the nature of life, and about morality that will resonate with the reader beyond the pages of the book.

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