Never Let Me Go

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro won the Booker Award (that was what it was called back then) in 1989 for The Remains of the Day. In that book the narrator, Stevens, is a butler formerly in the service of Lord Darlington. The dark twist to the tale is that beneath all the superficial cultivation of life at Darlington Hall, Lord Darlington and his fellow landed aristocrats are Fascists.

What, we are led to ask, did Stevens think of that? And we have to ask because Stevens, controlled to the end, isn’t saying. What he represses and conceals tells us just as much.

Never Let Me Go is a very similar sort of book. Here the narrator is Kathy H., who is raised in a very proper English boarding school called Hailsham. But despite the perfectly normal, respectable appearance of life at Hailsham – the soccer games, the walks by the duck pond, the children’s gossip in the pavilion, the art classes – all is not what it seems. As things turn out (and this isn’t really a spoiler, though Kathy does take a while to explain it all), the children at Hailsham are really genetically engineered clones who are being brought up so that their organs can be harvested when they get older.

Now there’s a bizarre twist! What Ishiguro is writing is a sort of alternative history/SF novel (it is set in the 1990s, but not the 1990s we all went through). And yet the question we are left with is the same: What Kathy H., the narrator and future organ donor, thinks of her part in all this. And we wonder all the more because, just like Stevens, the dutiful, emotionally repressed Kathy H. isn’t giving anything away.

The story isn’t very important. It is told as a series of flashbacks, which lets Kathy keep teasing us with her references to important things that she didn’t know about then, but which she will eventually reveal. Ishiguro has almost no interest in the nuts-and-bolts of how the cloned organ donor system works. What organs are we talking about anyway? We’re never told. And why not?

It is, however, the weird alternate-universe context that makes the novel so frustrating. The reserve, obedience, and even complicity, of Stevens says something about his upbringing, code of duty, class consciousness, and where all these things can lead us. We can understand Stevens, recognize in him something of ourselves. But here we are in a fantasy world. Ishiguro seems to want us to see the clones as real people, but their submission and the fetish they make of duty are inexplicable.

Have they been brainwashed? No; we know all about their education. And the fact is at least some of them want to defer their fate, if not escape it entirely. Are they compelled by the state? Apparently not. They have total freedom of movement, aren’t being monitored, and are an invisible minority able to “pass” at will. No one can tell that they are clones. Are they stupid? Not at all (though they do seem strangely clueless at times).

They are merely passive and obedient. There may be some significance to the fact that they can (and do) have sex but are sterile. They are neuters. What feelings they do have are all repressed.

Presumably it’s all meant as some kind of political allegory – surrendering one’s will to the ultimate caste system – and clearly Ishiguro is preoccupied by people who sacrifice so much of themselves to fulfill an inhuman social duty. One could read it as a sort of reverse-Blade Runner. Instead of androids wanting to be human it has humans who want to be cannibalized for spare parts and then scrapped.

Of course the execution is nearly flawless. Ishiguro has this voice down pat, and the narrative draws us along at a perfect pace with consummate skill. Never Let Me Go is a great read. One only hopes that the loss of human feeling, compromise of conscience, and stifling of individuality it evokes isn’t all that the future has in store.

Review first published April 16, 2005.


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