**Contains epic spoilers**
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro, (Faber and Faber 2005, RRP 7.99, pp304)
In the past of anyone who loves literature, there is usually a truly great English teacher. Mine was called Mr Lakin, and every time I think of Kazuo Ishiguro, I think of him. He taught me The Remains of the Day, and managed to interest a sixteen-year old girl in the power of memory, regret and that longing for the past peculiar to the evening of our lives. This mental association of mine seems particularly poignant with regards to Never Let me Go, when considering the importance that the teachers, or Guardians, of the elite boarding school Hailsham have in the lives of the children who live there. Thanks to Mr. Lakin, Ishiguro has long been a favourite author of mine, and I read Never Let me Go when it was first published in 2005. It is only recently, however, that I feel I have begun to read more carefully, and to really have the maturity to appreciate novels like these, rather than thoughtlessly devouring the plot.
The novel begins when Kathy H. is thirty-one. She is not in the twilight of her life, except in the sense that her life is to be considerably shorter than ours. She is reminiscing of childhood days, at Hailsham, an elite boarding school with a sinister difference. Kathy and her fellow pupils are clones, bred to eventually yield up their organs for transplant. Never let me Go is not meant to be a mystery, but the truth is revealed to us slowly, as Kathy drifts from one memory to the next. Her memories primarily relate to her relationship with her two friends, Ruth and Tommy, their existential search for truth during their school days at Hailsham, the break down of their friendship at the Cottages, and later, when she becomes the carer of first Ruth, then Tommy. Ultimately, the reader has to accept that we can’t know the full truth, that Kathy is an unreliable narrator. Memory is changeable, and even Kathy admits on occasion she doesn’t know if she was thinking or feeling something in the moment, or if she added it in later. Never explicit in her love for Tommy, it is obvious to reader that this is the reason for Kathy’s string of meaningless, short term relationships. There is real, tangible sadness when they finally get together, after Tommy’s third donation, because it is too late. Despite this, Kathy remains so controlled, her anguish deeply buried.
Kathy’s complex friendship with Ruth, despite her love for Tommy, comes across as the central relationship in her life. I think we’ve all had a friend like Ruth, and the more tricky and awkward she is, the more you seek her approval. The memories of their friendship Kathy selects to tell the reader are the moments where she rebelled against Ruth, when there was tension. In little, unimportant things, Kathy would fight back, but in the big things, in the thing that really mattered, Kathy was completely passive. She let Ruth take Tommy, even though, as Tommy states sadly towards the end, they loved each other their whole lives. They can only finally be together when Ruth gives them permission.
This is a novel that poses the question ‘what is to be human?’ When Kathy and her school friends first realise that the mysterious Madame is afraid of them, that she was afraid of them ‘in the same way someone might be afraid of spiders.’, they could not realise how influential she, along with Hailsham’s principal, Miss Emily, had been in securing their idyllic childhoods, nor how much of their lives was being shaped by well-meaning 1970s idealism. Madame and Miss Emily may have failed at their charitable endeavours, but they console themselves that they made an impact on a small group of children. The main question raised by their accomplishments seems to be was it worth it, giving the children of Hailsham a beautiful childhood and a good education, when they are going to be killed just the same? The answer to that question is explored in their focus on the art work produced by the Hailsham students, with Madame collecting the best pieces to be displayed in her ‘gallery’. The gallery, which acquired a legendary status amongst the students, was really a propaganda tool used to prove to the wider world that the students had human traits. The novel has a lot to say about art, as the element that proves our humanity. We are the only species that creates for the sake of creating. When Kathy and Tommy go to visit Madame and Miss Emily, in search of answers, they are told that some of the artwork from the gallery still exists. Hailsham is gone, the experiment failed, and all that is left of those students, and their individual, creative natures, is that artwork. The gallery was important after all.
The search for Ruth’s ‘possible’ in Norfolk, and Kathy scanning porn mags for a glimpse of her own face show the painful desire of those parentless children to find to a parent-like figure, and some sense of having come from somewhere. This reminded me of Frankenstein, and the monster’s enduring connection to Victor Frankenstein, as both father and God combined. There is a huge responsibility involved with the creation of life, however noble the motives, and humanity is something more intangible than simply the nature of your origins. There is so much left unsaid in this novel, and in the end it doesn’t matter. There are slight twists and turns, and a plot that unfolds gently, but what we are really given is a glimpse at a life, at three interconnected lives, and the fact that they are not human, does not make their appalling fate any less moving.
In all good sci-fi you can strip back the fantasy and find a comment on society. Ishiguro goes a step further, he is commenting on the human condition. The students of Hailsham have always known the truth about what would happen to them, without exactly knowing how they were first told. This is why they accept it passively, it is their reality. To a certain extent we all live our lives like this, we all accept on some level that it is inevitable we have to die. You cannot defer your death, just like Kathy and Tommy cannot defer their donations, even if you are in love. We can all look back on our lives and identify what we might have been, and what we could have done differently. We could rebel against the society and the world we have been given, we could go mad trying to go back and change things. Yet we don’t. The majority of us are content to live out our lives in a small way, taking pleasure in our loves, our work, and the little things. Sure, we might dream of being movie stars when we’re ten or eleven, but there’ll always be a Miss Lucy there to tell us we’re thinking too big.