The film version of “Never Let Me Go” is set to premiere soon, and in anticipation I dusted off my hardcover copy of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel for a reread, reminding me of this book’s provoking conceptuality and striking prose.
I have to warn you: “Never Let Me Go” reveals its quietly horrifying secret agonizingly slowly, and in fact never details the truth in its entirety. However — while this is a spoiler alert — the true beauty of the novel lies not in its plot but rather in its narrative reflection.
Kathy H., now 31, narrates the novel. She, along with her friends Ruth and Tommy, were once children at a prim English boarding school called Hailsham (deconstructionists, have at that name). Ruth is Kathy’s best friend-slash-occasional antagonist; Tommy, Ruth’s boyfriend but a close friend of Kathy’s. The ups and downs of their triangular relationship concern much of the novel’s narrative. By most accounts Kathy’s childhood was roughly similar to any other boarding school student’s: memorizing poetry, gossiping with her girlfriends while watching boys play football on the pitch, occasionally sneaking off for snogging sessions.
That familiar varnish quickly gives way to sinister clues about the children’s nature. Their teachers are referred to as guardians, and they stress to the children that remaining healthy on the inside is of the utmost importance. Art takes up a lot of the children’s time, and a mysterious woman known only as “Madame” comes to collect the best work every now and then, for what purpose it is unclear. Grown-up Kathy offhandedly mentions that she is a “carer” for other “donors.” Neither Kathy nor Ruth nor Tommy nor any other children ever discuss their parents, odd even at a fancy boarding school such as Hailsham.
The reality of these children’s lives is so slowly revealed that what could have been a cheap melodramatic revelation instead seems to come naturally, even fatefully. Kathy and the rest are clones, and their lives predetermined; in their early twenties, their organs will be harvested, one at a time, and eventually they will “complete,” a wickedly novel term for death. First, however, they serve as “carers,” nurses who stay with recent donors for medical and psychological support.
But the sci-fi horror story Ishiguro presents, while fascinating in its own right, is not the main event of “Never Let Me Go.” The literary center of the novel is not organ harvests but rather the relationships between Kathy, Ruth and Tommy as they at once know and yet do not know their fate. Even as tots the children are vaguely aware that they will one day be “donors”; the deep meaning of that revelation, however, understandably escapes their adolescent minds. It’s easy to forget, as well, that these people will die so young for a cause they don’t truly understand while they play and learn at Hailsham.
The novel’s name comes from a song Kathy plays again and again, a martini jazz hit called “Never Let Me Go.” The girl interprets the lyrics (“Oh baby, baby, baby, never let me go…”) as those of a once-barren woman now blessed with a child, fearful some terrible calamity will befall it. At one point Kathy finds herself alone in her dormitory, and plays the tape while dancing with a pillow substitute for a baby. As she turns she notices Madame standing in the doorway, watching her and weeping. Kathy and later Tommy assume it is because they cannot have children — another certain sign something is different about these Hailsham students.
Madame provides some of the best clues to their fate and ultimately explains a great deal about their lives. Although she remains outwardly calm while visiting Hailsham, Madame tenses and shudders when the children come to near her. Kathy notices her discomfort but never deduces its meaning until years later, when she is serving as Tommy’s carer and they track down Madame. There Kathy dredges up the dancing incident, and Madame explains that she did not see Kathy dancing with a baby. The revelation of why Madame really wept is too intricately attached to the plot to fairly recount here; nevertheless it remains a haunting parable worth the confusion first required to understand it.
Ishiguro’s prose is generally satisfying. Written from Kathy’s perception, the novel is an elongated memory stretching over a short lifetime. Too often Ishiguro clumsily foreshadows events by ending a section with some variation on, “And then something memorable happened next that changed everything.” Perhaps the phrasing is simply part and parcel of the fictional memoir, but its repeated use fleshes out the absurdity of the statement. Notably, that’s the greatest problem with “Never Let Me Go,” assuming one is open-minded enough to allow for science-fiction to be considered a great work of literature.
Much of “Never Let Me Go” is concerned with whether the children clones are human, if they can love and be loved, if they have souls. Ishiguro does a convincing job of leaving that consideration ambiguous, even in the end, after all the cards are laid on the table. Kathy’s on-and-off feuding with Ruth is real, but her flirtation with and eventual professed love for Tommy rings hollow. In any other novel that hollowness would be a pitfall; for Ishiguro, however, it is the very purpose of the novel, and he deftly obscures whether their love truly is hollow, meaning they have no souls, or if it is not true love at all, a possibly greater tragedy.