Never Let Me Go

by Kazuo Ishiguro
ISBN: 0676977103

Post Your Opinion
A Review of: Never Let Me Go
by Michael Harris

The year was 1997 and the stage was England. Over three decades of biotechnological research culminated in the birth of the world's first clone, Dolly the sheep. Her test-tube creation spurred worrisome speculations about "designer babies", "the gay gene", and the possibility of human clones. But while the world wrung its hands, Dolly stared at television cameras, chewed her cud, and remained nonplussed.
Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel, Never Let Me Go, is set conspicuously in "England, late 1990s" and spins a counter-factual history wherein our collective anxiety comes forcefully to life in the person of Kathy H.
Kathy is a good girl. Like Dolly, hers is a simple outlook on life, confined to the Arcadian grounds of Hailsham. Hailsham is a boarding school for clones that (don't tell Kathy!) doubles as an organ farm. One day all the boys and girls there will "donate" their vital bits, operation by operation, so that "real" people (not clones) can live healthier, longer, lives. Hailsham stands "in a smooth hollow with fields rising on all sides." And its bubble of seclusion is completed by a long, narrow road, running past a gate to the outside world and even some dark, scary woods at the perimeter: "When it got bad, it was like they cast a shadow over the whole of Hailsham." Hailsham students like to use the word "special" to describe themselves. Perhaps a more fitting moniker would be "free-run".
Lovers of Ishiguro's Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day (1989) may balk. Science fiction usually ranks, along with fantasy novels and mysteries, as the fast food of literature. Perhaps that is why Ishiguro, with his penchant for genre-smashing, chose clones to dissect humanity, rather than a more pedestrian subject.
Still, as science fiction goes, Kathy and her friends are heavy on the pedestrian. They while away the majority of their days not-as we might expect plotting an escape from the holocaust that is their lives, but by squabbling over who shall be friends with whom and who stole Kathy's favourite cassette tape.
The narrative centres on three Hailsham students-Kathy, Ruth and Tommy-who enter into a love triangle when puberty's stranglehold comes on. Kathy, being the good girl, holds back her feelings for the angst-ridden-but-darkly-alluring Tommy, allowing Ruth to have her way.
Considering Kathy's thwarted love and her fate as an involuntary organ donor, she narrates the novel with cool dispassion. Her account is unreliable as that of the ageing butler Stevens in The Remains of the Day. The genius of the character Stevens was not his ability to communicate, but precisely his stuffed-up inability to do so. Indeed, novelist and critic David Lodge goes so far as to claim that "Viewed objectively, [Stevens's] style has no literary merit whatsoever. It is completely lacking in wit, sensuousness and originality." Stevens, in other words, is a bore.
But Ishiguro himself is a master stylist, and this means that dull narrators (like Stevens and Kathy) make, paradoxically, for fascinating reads. The effectiveness of the unreliable narrator resides in Kathy's inability to tell her own story. In Kathy's case, lapses in memory aggravate the situation. "Or maybe I'm remembering it wrong," she worries. Then, later: "This was all a long time ago so I might have some of it wrong." And again: "we couldn't at first agree when it had happened." Hazy memory creates a detachment from all that came before. Kathy herself never grows angry, for example, at her predicament, and is unable even in adulthood to articulate the wrongs she has suffered.
Bland truth leaves no room for the flavour of intrigue, while evasions, or misconceptions, are potent. The gaps in Kathy's memory force an imaginative effort from the reader, so that we build the story ourselves, by inference and between-the-lines deductions.
But angry, red-faced Tommy, who bursts into rages seemingly at nothing, is the story's truthteller and has no patience for between-the-lines twaddle. "Tommy thought it possible the guardians had, throughout all our years at Hailsham, timed very carefully and deliberately everything they told us, so that we were always just too young to understand properly." Tommy feels keenly the breach between artifice and reality that is his world. He sees the sham of Hailsham. And Tommy longs to recapture what has been robbed.
He helps the timid Kathy, for starters, to find her lost cassette-a precious relic from childhood-though she is somehow blank when they succeed: "To my own surprise, I kept silent at firstI thought about pretending never to have seen it. And now it was there in front of me, there was something vaguely embarrassing about the tape, like it was something I should have grown out of." For Kathy, whose future is a moot point, the past becomes both precious and intangible. Hailsham students, being clones, do not live human lives with personal histories; they live shelf lives, with nothing more than expiry dates.
Every dystopian novel has its Winston Smith, and Never Let Me Go has Tommy. Not content with recapturing mementoes from childhood, Tommy digs at the roots of the cloning industry, to answer those humanity-defining questions: Where did I come from? Who am I?
And what is a clone? Where does humanity abide? Should a facsimile be afforded the same rights and freedoms as an original? Ishiguro's moral conundrum is not a new one. In fact, all the elemental problems that cloning called up in the late 90s were hashed out decades earlier (on a lesser scale) in art galleries. Cloning is the problem of photography made flesh.
Susan Sontag, perhaps our most erudite commentator on the problem of photography, states that "photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one." It is the journalistic quality of pictures, their "this happened" sureness, that Sontag invokes when she calls them reinforcers of a moral position. Christopher Isherwood famously stated "I am a camera" to claim objective distance from morally suspect subject matter. And Ishiguro's clone-narrator Kathy would likely do the same. She is a print, a documentary. She does not judge or holler in outrage. In Never Let Me Go, all of Ishiguro's clone characters remind us of moral quandaries but are unable, somehow, to fight back, to "create a moral position" of their own.
That said, Kathy and red-faced Tommy do attempt at least to solve the technical mystery of their existence. And Ishiguro then has them resemble the crime-solving teens of TV's Scooby Doo more than characters drawn up by a serious novelist. There's even a ridiculously long monologue near the end wherein a mastermind explains away all the mysteries the book had marinated in. The reader half expects a criminal to bleat "and I would've gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for you meddlin' kids!" It is an unsubtle ending to a very subtle book.
In Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro's protagonists are partially an embodiment of the moral crisis around cloning and only partially fleshed out humans. Yet this very convention-this dehumanizing of the science fiction hero-plays into Ishiguro's trap. As in all his novels, here we are abandoned in a strange world, a strange mind, and must hack our way back to ourselves.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us