Review: Never Let Me Go By Kazuo Ishiguro
This dystopian winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature is a complex and deeply compassionate insight into friendship and humanity. The narrative follows the life of Kathy from her childhood in Hailsham (an idyllic institution for raising children) to her work as a carer as an adult. From the outset there are subtle undertones of the unspoken treatment that would befall the children once leaving Hailsham - they are clones raised for their organs to be harvested to save the rest of humanity from killer diseases. The focus of the novel isn’t on being a donor until the climax of the book; instead Ishiguro focuses on humanising the clones and showing just how similar they are to ordinary children. Ishiguro masterfully creates an environment, in Kathy’s flashbacks of Hailsham, in which the reader undergoes a similar process of delaying a confrontation with the truth. The adolescent dramas of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy provide a welcome distraction. Hailsham represents the golden childhood which everyone would wish to look back on - pranks, caring teachers and a beautiful place to grow up in. This paradise is shattered at the climax of the novel only to leave the reader with the thought that it was merely a veneer masking a genetically-engineered atrocity.
One of the core themes of this masterpiece is the idea of love and friendship. Kathy has complicated relationships with her best friend Ruth and her eventual lover Tommy. Throughout the trio’s time at Hailsham, Ishiguro’s narrator describes how friendships may lead to vulnerability and the difficulty of maintaining happy relationships. When the students graduate from Hailsham and head to the ‘Cottages’ they meet older donors, who have not enjoyed the luxurious Hailsham experience and quickly attempt to fit in. These attempts highlight the difficulty of maintaining friendships as you grow older and move through different phases of experience. In one of the most poignant observations, Ishiguro depicts Ruth copying the older donors’ way of saying goodbye to their partners - what she isn’t aware of is that the gesture is copied from a television series. These attempts to assimilate are only shown to be taken from an already falsified version of reality. Their removal from real life is only enforced at the climax, when Kathy and Tommy are presented with the harsh reality that they can’t delay the donations even if they are in love. They are not deemed human enough for this escape.
Ishiguro sets up the paradise of Hailsham only to have hints of foreboding slowly create an uneasy atmosphere. Insinuated allusions gradually encroach on both Kathy and the reader until there has to be a confrontation with the truth. The question of what it means to be human is central and provokes many tough questions for the reader. How would we react in a society that possesses the cures to all the worst illnesses, yet at the cost of raising clones to harvest their organs? How would we treat the clones? Uncomfortable questions that are well worth pondering. It is characteristic of Ishiguro to reveal some of the most unpalatable truths of being human: in Remains of the Day
, for example, a central conceit concerns life’s wasted opportunities. The deaths of Ruth and Tommy bear a heightened emotional impact as Kathy is left to continue on her path to donations alone. The question which sustains beyond the boundaries of this fine novel is, are we are any better than the denizens of the dystopian landscape Ishiguro presents us with?
Never Let Me Go
is published by Faber and Faber