My #FridayReads: Never Let Me Go

by Rachael on October 6, 2017

It was Brian who told me, yesterday over breakfast, that Kazuo Ishiguro had been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature. “My man won!” I exclaimed, jubilant. I’m not sure why my mind grabbed at that particular colloquialism — when do I ever call anyone “my man”? The five-year-old picked up on it, however, and asked, “Who’s my man?”

Ishiguro’s sixth novel, Never Let Me Go, is among my favorite novels. I often think about one of the final scenes in the book: Tommy, in a field late at night, raging at his fate. I wonder how different his (and Kathy’s, and Ruth’s) plight is from ours; despite the crucial difference, of course, that from the very beginning of their lives it has been determined that they will not live beyond young adulthood, nor will they have children. And everyone, including those who claim to advocate for them, is complicit in their fate.

Here’s what I wrote for a class I took on book reviewing not long after I first read Never Let Me Go.

* * *

The narrators of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels, though sympathetic, cannot be entirely trusted. They do not intend to deceive; indeed, they freely admit their own uncertainty. “This was all a long time ago so I might have some of it wrong,” says the narrator of Ishiguro’s sixth novel, Never Let Me Go, grounding the unreliability of her narrative in the unreliability of memory. It is a statement that any Ishiguro narrator might make, and in fact they frequently do interrupt their own stories in order to question their plausibility or accuracy. The telling of the tale and the questioning of it are both part of search for meaning that perhaps the narrator does not truly wish to comprehend. The challenge for the writer of such narratives is to reveal what the narrator cannot (or does not wish to) see, and in his 1989 Booker Prize–winning The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro employed this technique most successfully, to heartbreaking effect. We see so clearly where Stevens does not. We see the futility of what he believed were great purposes; we see the love story that he was too afraid to share.

Like The Remains of the Day, the gorgeous and disquieting Never Let Me Go has a love story at its heart. Its landscape, however, is quite different from that of Stevens’s recognizable postwar England. According to a page that precedes Part One of 31-year-old Kathy H.’s narrative, we are situated in “England, late 1990s,” but in the first few paragraphs of her tale, she betrays odd clues about her world and her place in it. She is a “carer” who works with people called “donors,” and she refers to a mysterious “they” who seem to have control over her fate. “They” want her to go on working as a carer for another eight months; “they” have been pleased with her work. As proof of her good work, she offers these unsettling observations: “My donors have always tended to do much better than expected. Their recovery times have been impressive, and hardly any of them have been classified as ‘agitated,’ even before fourth donation.”

Fourth donation? What England of the late nineties is this, where people donate organs more than once, even more than three times, if they make it? In what England do donors give until they cannot possibly survive? In Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro asks, What if we had generated an underclass of human clones, born and raised solely to fulfill the purpose of donating their vital organs in their twenties and thirties? What if you were one of those clones? In Ishiguro’s hands, these questions become vehicles for exploring the classic tragic themes of fate and salvation.

The story itself is simple enough. Against the vague backdrop of her present life as a carer shuttling from recovery center to recovery center, Kathy recounts the development of her relationship with Ruth and Tommy, whom she befriended in childhood at their boarding school, Hailsham, and whom she later chose to care for. An apparently idyllic place where students were encouraged to read, listen to music, make art, and write poetry, Hailsham is a haunting and mythic presence in the adult lives of Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy—and even in the imaginations of donors who never set foot at the school, as Kathy learns early in her career as a carer, when a donor, dying after his third donation, urges her to tell him about her time at the school. “At first I thought this was just the drugs, but then I realised his mind was clear enough. What he wanted was not just to hear about Hailsham, but to remember Hailsham, just like it had been his own childhood.” Yet Hailsham held its own, possibly sinister mysteries. There is the mystery of Madame, who periodically visits the school to collect the students’ best art and poetry for her rumored gallery and yet regards the students with fear and disgust, as she might regard spiders. There is also the mystery of the guardian Miss Lucy’s cryptic and contradictory advice to Tommy—first, that his “being creative” or not does not matter; then, years later, that “it is important. And not just because it’s evidence. But for your own sake.” Evidence? Of what?

Ultimately, Miss Lucy is dismissed; unsurprisingly, given her sudden outburst one day at the students’ sports pavilion, “The problem, as I see it, is that you’ve been told and not told. You’ve been told, but none of you really understand, and I dare say, some people are quite happy to leave it that way. But I’m not. If you’re going to have decent lives, then you’ve got to know and know properly.” In her outburst, she approaches an articulation of the paradox of Kathy’s and the other Hailsham students’ lives: that they should even have lives. However discomforting it might be to the outside world, from whom they are sheltered—for whose protection?—the clones have lives that are more or less their own. More or less: the circumscription of those lives is to me the most puzzling aspect of Ishiguro’s vision. Why do Kathy and Tommy merely pursue the rumor that their love might grant them a deferral? Why not seek freedom?

But, it seems there is no freedom from fate, and so Kathy is left to tell us—in a matter-of-fact, conversational tone that belies the undercurrents of longing, grief, and desperation to her story—what her life has been like. And under the pressure of her circumstances, small, childhood things—the lies that Ruth told about how she acquired a pencil case with a pom-pommed zipper, the tape of cocktail-bar songs that Kathy lost and that, years later, Tommy replaced—become the most meaningful things in Kathy’s searching narrative.

But what does it matter to us? Kathy H.’s fate is not ours; there are no clones; we are free. And yet, anything we can say about Kathy’s ultimate fate, we can also say about our own. In the end, our memories fade and are lost forever. In the end, love will not save us. How, then, are we to have decent lives?

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