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Never Let Me Go

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Reviewing this book presents the commentator with the perennial problem, more usually encountered by film critics, of how to elucidate the material without giving away the all important twist upon which it all hangs, the revelation of which retrospectively casts the whole story in an entirely different light. Alas, due to the excellent publicity job done by the publishers, the world and his wife knows by now that the new novel by former Booker Prize winner Ishiguro (for 1989’s The Remains of the Day) is ‘about clones’, a fact only verified for the unforewarned reader when he reaches p127 of the text. Some reviewers have even been foolhardy enough to describe the work as Ishiguro’s first foray into science fiction. This is doubly unfortunate, since to focus exclusively on the biotechnological element of this genre-defying and -defining story represents a seriously reductive reading of what is, like most of the best science fiction, a subtly allegorical tale. For this is not so much a novel about clones, as one about that far more extreme state of existence, which we cringe with embarrassment in calling the human condition. This is the reason, rather than the fact that most of you will already have heard anyway by now, that this writer has little compunction about the potential party-pooping involved in giving the game away. Besides, Ishiguro is a determinedly undramatic writer, his fictions usually proceeding by subtle shifts in tone rather than grand gestures. By the time our suspicions are confirmed, it is no more than we have guessed.

Kathy, Ruth and Tommy were pupils at Hailsham, an idyllic private school somewhere in the English countryside. The children were sheltered entirely from the outside world and brought up to believe that they were special. While it strikes us as strange that they have only initial letters for surnames, and that no mention is made of their families, they are not aware of anything out of the ordinary in their circumstances, as how could they know any different?




At Hailsham they were educated by guardians: the Principal Miss Emily, the gentle Miss Geraldine, and the sporty Miss Lucy, the latter of whom grows uneasy with the way her charges are being treated, given what’s in store for them, and unceremoniously spills the beans. They are also visited by Madame, who takes their more accomplished art and poetry away with her, for her gallery. But they are vaguely yet unmistakeably aware that those responsible for their welfare are palpably repulsed by them. With the otherworldly atmosphere a splendidly idiosyncratic but worryingly euphemistic vocabulary emerges, and we learn that these young people will in early adulthood become ‘carers’ in recovery centres, and then ‘donors’ themselves, and even go searching for their ‘possibles’, before they eventually ‘complete’.

Now thirty-one, Kathy looks back on the past and narrates the haunting story of how she and her two best friends slowly come to deal with the truth about their seemingly happy childhoods, the place where it happened, and what the future holds for them. Kathy and Tommy are flabbergasted to learn later, when they finally confront their former guardians, that there could possibly have been a serious debate in the wider world about whether or not they had souls. But they, it transpires, were the lucky ones, having received an enlightened education. The majority of their kind, bred only for the use their internal organs would be put to, were not deemed worthy of such special care, and their upbringing was rather more rough and rudimentary. Yet, if their end is to be exactly the same as the others, it begs the question, which they rightly ask, “Why Hailsham at all?” The place was a sham, but they have to hail it.

When I claimed above that it did not matter if this review revealed the plot, invoking our old friend the ‘human condition’ as my excuse, it was precisely because Ishiguro is asking a more universal question here about the nature of mortality, for all of us: if we are all going to die, sooner or later, what’s the point of any human striving and achievement? “Why anything at all?” We distract ourselves with religion, thinking holy people inhabit another plain, and will be saved; or with art, imagining artists live more fully than other people and that art is redemptive; or with the search for love, hoping that finding someone else to share it all with will confer meaning on our lives and make us happy. Yet our fate remains unchanged: we are still going to die. However special we are, or imagine ourselves to be, no one is spared. Paradoxically, the clones have it both better and worse than the rest of us: they at least die giving life, but they help prolong the lives of uncaring and ungrateful humans. It is perhaps significant here that while most humans can reproduce, these clones cannot have children.

This book is so much more than a meditation on the ethical problems thrown up by genetic research. If the characters seem emotionally stilted, just try imaging what it would be like to grow up in an institution, without parents, or even the knowledge that people have parents, and with no expectations of having a family to raise or a career to develop. By the same token, Kathy and Ruth and Tommy are no more or less repressed than Stevens, the butler in The Remains of the Day. What is ultimately seen as important is the act of remembrance, for as Kathy writes towards the end, ‘I was talking to one of my donors a few days ago who was complaining about how memories, even your precious ones, fade surprisingly quickly. But I don’t go along with that. The memories I value most, I don’t see them ever fading. I lost Ruth, then I lost Tommy, but I won’t lose my memories of them.’ What history is to a nation, memory is to the individual. Which is why the amnesiac pianist hero of Ishiguro’s wonderful previous novel, The Unconsoled, is condemned to living in a nightmare world where something always prevents him getting things done, and he can never finish anything.

In cool, pellucid prose, while deftly withholding and gradually revealing salient information, Ishiguro has fashioned yet another indelibly strange but oddly moving work of art, which is, in the end, a love story, as flat yet hypnotic as the Norfolk landscape it references.

First published in The Sunday Independent













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