Never Let Me Go (2005)


Never Let Me Go was the sort of read that is difficult to put down. From beginning to end, the story grips you, constantly dangling a carrot for you to chase through its pages. But ultimately you catch that carrot, realize it is quite bland, and you soon forget its taste. Then, because you are a blogger who can’t let a good opinion on something slip away, you force yourself to write a post about it.

This is that post.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go follows Kathy, now a fully grown adult, as she recounts her youth at a special boarding school in England called Hailsham. It’s a story of innocence and the ignorance that often accompanies. Told entirely from Kathy’s point of view, the mysterious circumstances of her childhood and Hailsham are never entirely answered. All the reader can ever get is Kathy’s side of things.

That’s both the novels biggest strength and most glaring weakness. Each chapter slowly builds toward another reveal in the puzzle of Kathy and her fellow schoolmates existence. More often than not, that big reveal turns out to be a bit of a red herring or gets brushed aside. It didn’t infuriate me at all as I read Never Let Me Go; in fact, the novel is quite poignant in how it captures youth and genuinely felt interested in Kathy as a character. The entire novel is shadowed by a storm cloud, and you are forced to wait in order to see if it will rain or not. Rain being both metaphorical and literal sense the novel does produce some feels.

Looking back, however, the pay off didn’t do it for me. As much as I was invested in the characters, the novel’s slow reveal left me with an amazing science fiction plot that goes unexplored. I will never complain about science fiction stories that focus on individual, human elements, but even at its best moments, Never Let Me Go‘s is science fiction only as an afterthought.

Kathy and everyone else at Hailsham are clones. In fact, they are raised primarily to be organ donors – effectively making them farm animals. At Hailsham, they experience a typical upbringing. They play, they go to school, etc. However, their teachers and the visitors of Hailsham are not clones. Through Kathy, Ishiguro does an excellent job of conveying a sense of ‘otherness’ without deliberately pointing it out. As the story unfolds, different episodes involving the various non-clones who interact with Kathy and her friends give you a sense that something is amiss.

Without that sense of ‘otherness’ or the fact that Kathy never mentions parents or family, you’d think the children of Hailsham were perfectly typical human beings. Ishiguro goes at great lengths to portray their normalcy, to relate their own struggles with love, sex, friendship, and growing up through Kathy’s inner musings that you never look at these clones as anything less than human. Despite the nature of their birth, these are real people with real potential.

And then the novel explains how all of these clones are destined to die. They give each of their organs away until their body can no longer continue on. As a carer (basically, a clone who has been given the responsibility of being a nurse for those currently giving away their organs), Kathy has a front side seat to a mostly-humane way of doing something very inhuman to some very human-like inhumans. Yeah, hell of a sentence.

When the novel’s love triangle finally corrects itself and Kathy ends up with a love you knew all along should have happened already, it is far too late for a happy ending. While this is easily the novel’s tightest grip, it doesn’t really work if you manage to loosen its grasp long enough to take a good, hard look at it. For one, Kathy always seems complacent with what is going on. There’s no attempt to defy the system. Instead, she and Tommy (her beloved) try to use a rumoured rule that Hailsham students who can prove they are sufficiently in love can put off giving up their organs. For all the humanity Ishiguro wants to give these non-human humans, he never captures the human spirit of fighting to survive.

Perhaps, in the end, that’s just a larger comment on the docility of these domesticated animals. Not unlike the gentle cow, these clones are created with a singular, utilitarian purpose. They lack fight because no matter how human we believe they are, they are still ultimately products on an assembly line casually riding a conveyor belt to their intended destination.

If the writing had been a little better or the story a little more developed, I might be more sure of what Never Let Me Go was trying to say. In the end, just as with Kathy’s meditations on her own nature and purpose, I am left to ponder these mysteries with no answers to be found.