‘Never let me go’ is a wonderful but gruesome novel. Not gruesome because of any explicit gore — far from it. The book is written with a simplicity that has a quiet and understated beauty, much like the English countryside in which the story is set. The horror of the subject matter is all beneath the surface. The gentlest of clues are used to set the reader’s imagination on edge. It is a sad and harrowing tale, and it makes compelling reading.
Ishiguro’s novel is, in some senses, a ‘science fiction’, although its literary style and focus on human psychology is far removed from the conventions of popular sci-fi. Like much of Margaret Atwood’s work, this book takes off from a premise about the implications of science for humanity, but there is no preoccupation with technology. One of the beauties of Ishiguro’s writing is the way he suggests an alternative reality without labouring to explain it, trusting his readers to imagine what has only been implied — or trusting them to wait in suspense.
If you have not read the book, I recommend it to you highly, and suggest that you stop reading this article here. What follows is not so much a review of the book as a meditation on some of its implications. The article will be better if you have read the book, and the book will be better if you haven’t read the article.
Cover of the 2006 Faber and Faber paperback edition of ‘Never let me go’ by Kazuo Ishiguro, first published in 2005. Page references in this article are to this paperback edition.
‘Never let me go’ is set in an alternative-1990s-England. It begins in a school for what appear to be privileged children, but gradually small but unnerving dissonances reveal that the reality is far from what we might expect. The children have no parents; they are clones of unknown ‘models’; they are being raised to provide ‘donations’ (body parts) for other ‘normal’ people.
Stating this so baldly immediately undercuts the subtlety of the novel. The children, while they are aware of their fate, never have it stated to them so explicitly, and never realise it for themselves in such concrete terms.
… even at that age — we were nine or ten — we knew just enough to make us wary of that whole territory. It’s hard now to remember just how much we knew by then. We certainly knew — though not in any deep sense — that we were different from our guardians, and also from the normal people outside; we perhaps even knew that a long way down the line there were donations waiting for us. But we didn’t really know what that meant. (p69)
What preoccupies Kathy (the narrator) and her friends, Tommy and Ruth, are the stuff of everyday life: relationships, possessions, hopes for the future. Despite the doom hanging over their heads, they never rebel or attempt to flee. They are enmeshed in the life they have, and although it may be appalling for us (readers) to watch this from outside, for them this fate is inseparable from life and identity. There is really no question of escape.
Kathy and her friends are brought up in a caring environment, looked after by guardians who are strict but loving and kind. The understanding of their purpose and path in life is implicit in everything around them. They will finish school, spend a few years of relative freedom, then become carers who assist older colleagues to recover from making their donations. After a time, they will be called to become donors themselves. Usually, the first donation is minor, but their impact rises in intensity. The fourth donation usually leads to ‘completion’ — not exactly death:
… even if you’ve technically completed, you’re still conscious in some sort of way; how you find there are more donations, plenty of them, on the other side of that line; how there are are no more recovery centres, no carers, no friends; how there’s nothing to do except watch your remaining donations until they switch you off. (p274)
This sounds horrific, but if it is the path of life, what is there to do but think of other things? As we read Kathy’s story, we ask ‘why doesn’t she run away?’. No doubt there are practical inhibitors, but these go unremarked in the novel. The real inhibitor is Kathy’s sense of identity — a personal identity that has been constructed from the outside in ways that cultivate her sense of autonomy at the same time as defining what Kathy can do.
How different, really, is the fabric of our own lives, or the expectations that we embrace? We are not clones raised to be organ donors, but we are people raised to give our lives to a system that will use us until death. School, university, work, marriage, children, an undignified retirement, a final hospitalisation, ‘until they switch [us] off’. Sometimes we protest, sensing an unfairness or narrowness to the path ahead of us. But mostly we embrace our lives and get on. What else is there? We do not rebel or seek to escape. We seek the happiness that is available to us within the world that contains us, and we excuse the monstrosity of the system out of an understanding that it is far bigger and stronger than ourselves. Might it not be that this is the best we can hope for? If not brought into being by the system, we might not exist at all. Moreover, we do have hopes. Like the children in ‘Never let me go’, who embrace rumours that there might be ‘deferrals’ or even a possibility of permanently changing status, we imagine that we might strike it rich, discover fame, or in some other way be rescued by society from the fate that society clearly demands from us (which is to be cultivated, to produce, to consume, to regulate ourselves and the people around us, to pass on, to pass away). We even hope that death is not the end. We think of other things.
There are obviously many other aspects of Ishiguro’s novel that have not been discussed here. This article is inspired by the book rather than interpreting it. Quite a lot has been written about the book since its publication, most of it not freely available on the internet. For those who would like a simpler approach, there is of course the movie based on the book, released in 2010 (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1334260/).
© 2019 Craig Bingham
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