Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017. This article presents his novel “Never let me go” (Faber and Faber, London, 2005, 282 pages), prescribed at HSC level. The book is remarkable for vividly depicting the closed world of human clones, and the emotional journey of three protagonists.
Kathy, Tommy and Ruth are being groomed to be creative at Hailsham. The classmates, at age 16, are moved to Cottages to spend their adolescence and finally to Kingsfield for organ harvesting. Kathy fancies Tommy but Ruth interposes between them deliberately. Later, Ruth, realising her mistake, gives them, before dying, their ex-headmistress’ address to see if they can be given some more years to live. There, Kathy and Tommy discover some bitter truths about their dark future.
In a utopian setting, everything is ideal; in a dystopian one, things are unpleasant or they deteriorate. Hailsham is idyllic as a boarding school, the children are joyful in all their innocence, but they’re cut off from society. The place, “in a smooth hollow with fields rising on all sides” (page 34), is suggestive of confinement. An air of mystery and secrecy prevails. The truck coming and going is the sole means of connecting to the outside world. Guardians raise the children rigidly.
The adolescents indulge in sex but are infertile. They can’t ask questions. They’ve a vague idea about eventual donations. Information is withheld from them. On the surface everything appears normal, in reality it’s a pretension. Kathy and Tommy will later discover that Hailsham was founded as an experiment to provide humane treatment to the clones. “You were better off than many who came before you” (p 261) and “All around the country, at this very moment, there are students being reared in deplorable conditions, conditions you Hailsham students could hardly imagine” (p 255) are clear indications of the ugly way clones are treated.
We’re in a world of carers, donors, recovery centres, recovery times, nurses, medicals, drugs, doctors, pain and exhaustion and… programmed death. But love and friendship is always possible even in a ruthless world. We see the characters trying to give a deeper meaning to their lives.
In 1996 scientists created an identical sheep called Dolly by means of cloning. Although it was a breakthrough, many people started raising ethical, moral and religious questions in relation to the scientific achievement. Fears and doubts were expressed. Could humans be cloned? What would be the consequences? Could clones be more intelligent than humans? What were scientists up to? What was the point of playing God? They were pertinent questions. Technological innovations are beneficial to humans, plants and animals. However, there’s evidence of gadgets being misused, in war for instance, destroying lives and endangering the environment. We also have synthetic drugs ruining families and lab-produced fake medicines with disastrous side effects.
But the book isn’t about cloning as such. Nevertheless, it inevitably raises questions about the issue. Fundamentally, the book is about growing up and the changes that go along with it. We see relationships being made and broken. Characters enrich themselves through interaction, gaining insight into their lives and adjusting to changing situations. They learn to put up with pain and grief. The author himself claims that it is the shifting relationships between characters that make a story interesting.
The narrative is aptly described as breathtaking. There are plenty of funny situations and delightful moments. It’s a warm feeling to see children clowning around, bullying hot-tempered Tommy, playing, shouting, mimicking, sharing secrets and jokes, teasing and taunting, flirting, and a girl finding an especially disgusting way of blowing the nose to put off a boy. They win our sympathy, particularly when we know they’re not meant to live long.
Each location represents a stage in the growth of the characters and each has its own specificity and mood. We travel back and forth in time with Kathy’s constant flashbacks (she’s the narrator). A simple word is often enough to bring a flood of memories to her mind. As an adult, we see her ordering or getting straight her scattered reminiscences, trying to interpret, evaluate and understand what she could not have understood as a child. She gets a wider perspective on past events. At times memories occur to her as clear as “a polished shoe” (p 56), at other times they’re less so; and they do not occur in a chronological order. This gives a subjective and authentic touch to her reconstitution of the past
At one level, the book could be a sci-fi or fantasy story, at another, a simple, countryside love story.
Having discovered the truth about the clones (the revelation chapters 21 and 22 are over-lengthy in my view), Tommy says he keeps seeing a river and two people holding each other but drifting away due to the strong currents. The drifting away symbolically highlights the fact that Tommy and Kathy can’t control their fate, and also foreshadows death. Ironically, their death is decided not by God but by humans.
Certain questions linger on closing the book: Can you escape your fate? What does it mean to lose the ones you love? Why is happiness short-lived? Why do adults use children or young adults to further their own ends?