Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is about clones, but don’t get your hopes up. This is an unconventional clone story.
That’s right. There aren’t any mad scientists, nor are there any daring escapes. There isn’t even a sterile cloning facility run by a ruthless villain. So forget about a daring infiltration scene in which the sterile cloning facility is shut down from within.
There is, however, a private boarding school – Hailsham – and thankfully, it’s a mysterious place. All of our favorite boarding school tropes are present, including the distant headmaster, Madame; the rebel teacher, Ms. Lucy; and even a bully, Ruth. We are also invited to speculate about the purpose of the students’ curriculum. At Hailsham, students study nothing but art and they have “guardians” rather than teachers. They are constantly asked to be creative, but not curious. Creative works that are especially impressive will be showcased in a distant gallery. No one knows anything more about the Gallery other than that it exists.
Like many an SFF, Never Let Me Go has its share of “vocabulary.” For example, Kathy, is a “carer,” and she cares for special patients who make “donations” until they finally “complete.” Practiced readers of speculative fiction are used to seeing “vocabulary,” so most readers will have raced way ahead of Kathy and the other two points of her love triangle, Ruth and Tommy, by the time they graduate high school.
Consequently, Never Let Me Go is a bit of a tedious read for anyone that was expecting the pacing of a science fiction adventure, or an emotional climax analogous to Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Going To Take It.” Instead, Ishiguro focuses on the minutiae of the interpersonal and introspective.
Unfortunately, Ishiguro’s characters are not very engaging. In The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro’s ability to write between the lines heightened the tension of the novel, and Stevens’ refusal to deal with his emotions directly was part of what made him such a fascinating narrator. Here, Kathy and her love triangle are concerned with whether clones can love one another. However, her emotional struggles are decidedly muted, which was perhaps intended to create thematic ambiguity but I found it irritating. Ultimately, Ishiguro’s trademark subtlety makes Never Let Me Go an emotionally flat read.
However, Kathy’s passive description of the consequences of “donations” is painful to read. Ishiguro is content to write in these details as background noise, and it is one of the few instances in the novel where this decision pays off.
If readers are interested in reading a story about clones rebelling, striving for justice, or suffering tragically, they should probably look elsewhere. Ishiguro will offer no romantic solutions. This is a bleak novel about artificial life forms whose purpose is to cure cancer. Never Let Me Go is a frustrating, uncomfortable novel that offers readers the chance to watch these passive characters endure a difficult, unhappy life. Enter at your own risk.
‘Understated’ is not the first word that springs to mind when it comes to clone novels, but Kazuo Ishiguro quietly turns that perception on its head. In a quiet exploration of the human condition, Never Let Me Go handles themes of identity, humanity and morality with surprising grace.
We first meet Kathy whilst she is undertaking her duties as a carer, though whom she is caring for and why are not initially clear. Soon we are transported back to her school days as she recalls her past and the events of her childhood that led to where she is today. She attended a boarding school called Hailsham, and it’s about as Englishly idyllic as you can get: there is a vegetable garden which needs tending, a selection of girly cliques, a scenic countryside backdrop. The teachers — or guardians, as they’re known as — put a strange emphasis on art and students are all encouraged to produce pieces that are traded amongst each other or whisked off by Madame, a mysterious proprietor-type figure, who visits the school sporadically.
But strange details about the school don’t always add up. A sinister emphasis is put on the pupils’ health: smoking is looked upon almost as a crime and students consider doing anything detrimental to their health taboo. One guardian — Miss Lucy — hints about some greater purpose the pupils all have, but young and naïve as our narrator is at this time, Kathy doesn’t question these anomalies too closely.
Her best friend at the school is Ruth, who she is currently a carer for in present time. Kathy develops feelings for a boy called Tommy, but Ruth starts a relationship with him. It marks the beginning of the complicated relationship between these three characters as they try and navigate the murky purpose of their schooling.
After they graduate from Hailsham, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy move to the Cottages: a kind of halfway-house between their boarding school and becoming a carer in the real world. More and more is divulged about their purpose (highlight here to see a brief spoiler): when one of the older kids at the Cottages says they’ve seen Ruth’s ‘possible,’ it turns out that each of them has been cloned from someone else, and they’re all looking out for their possibles with a kind of sick fascination. [end spoiler]
The real tension in Never Let Me Go lies in the slow revealing of who exactly Kathy is caring for and why her patients need her. The story is, at its heart, a mystery that unfurls without any grand showy reveals or bangs — it just becomes gradually, horrifyingly apparent what the pupils of Hailsham are destined for.
It will come as no surprise to readers that the novel was nominated for the Booker prize: its sparse prose is beautifully written. What’s more, Ishiguro deals with huge moral themes in an understated and thoughtful way. He does not emphasise the horrors of humanity; in fact, the quiet way he depicts the moral issues of cloning is perhaps even more unsettling than were he to draw more attention to them.
The eventual revelation of Kathy’s role and the fates of her friends is deeply uncomfortable. In fact, the futility of the entire situation was rather depressing. The stoic way in which Kathy accepts her lot bordered on frustrating: no one ultimately seems proactive or motivated enough to really do anything about their situation. The story by no means needed a happy ending, but perhaps a little more hope would’ve gone a long way. Readers might not help feeling that finishing Never Let Me Go was as futile as Kathy and co.’s existence seems to be.
Yuck. I will skip it. Thanks for the review!
It’s funny you use the word “muted” to describe Kathy, as I used the same word in my Amazon review–that’s exactly the problem. You can see what he’s trying to do with having things be muted or banal or emotionally cool, but it’s a tough line to tiptoe without having the reader feel the reading itself is banal. This was one of his more disappointing books for me–moving at times, especially at the end, but the subject matter almost makes it impossible not to be moving. But too flat for me and I think you’re spot on that it will read especially so for those coming to it thinking “sci fi novel”. I wonder if it might have made a better long short story/novella–you might have gotten away with that flatness for that distance.
@Bill. Great minds think alike, eh?