Never Let Me Go is one of the strangest books I have read this year and in order to try to make sense of it, I’m afraid I’m going to be engaging in some plot spoiling. Actually, this may not be overly spoiler-y, as the reader figures out most of what I’m going to reveal early on in the novel. Ishiguro wants it that way, I think, because his characters experience the same thing. They know what is going to happen to them, and yet…. Reviews have described it as science fiction and as dystopian, but I would say that this novel is a “lite” version of those genres. The dystopian and science-y parts of the book are almost incidental to the plot. Ishiguro is focused instead on life-long relationships, loss of innocence, and death.
The story is set in 1990s England, and our narrator Kathy is about 30 years old. She works as a “carer,” which affords her the opportunity to travel around England to work with patients (we know off the bat that they are donors), and gives her time to reminisce. Her thoughts turn invariably to Hailsham, a renowned boarding school where she grew up with her closest friends Ruth and Tommy. When Kathy’s donors find that she attended this school, they are impressed and very curious, wanting to know more about Hailsham than they care to reveal about themselves. As Kathy notes, it is as if some of them want to take her memories and adopt them as their own. Kathy has worked as a carer for over a decade and is nearing the end of her time in that position. She has been a good carer, has served an unusually long time in that capacity, and has even been allowed to choose her patients sometimes, which is how she re-connects with Ruth and Tommy.
Kathy’s memories of Hailsham reveal that it is not your typical English boarding school. Teachers are referred to as “guardians,” students have frequent medical check-ups, and producing art is highly valued. The students really have no contact with the outside world. They don’t leave the school grounds until graduation. None of them have family outside Hailsham. Kathy says that Hailsham students have always known that they are “special” and that they have a particular purpose once they leave. They know that they are clones being raised so that their organs can be harvested as needed later. After Hailsham, students get a year or two on a sort of commune, where they gradually acclimate to life in the real world. From there they become carers and ultimately donors until they die.
Pretty horrific, huh? The explanation for why this system exists is offered at the very end of the book, along with the significance of producing art. It’s not much of an explanation and begs many questions, such as why the victims of this system would go along with it and not try to escape. Yet, as is quite clear throughout the novel, the students at Hailsham know what is in their future; no one has lied to them about that, although perhaps the full truth of it was obscured. I found this all to be a great let down though, and it serves as evidence that Ishiguro really wasn’t interested in writing a science fiction novel or examining questions of medical ethics and morality. He is interested in the relationships that exist and develop within this community. Those relationships look very much like the kinds of relationships any of us would have in our lives.
For Ishiguro, the point of interest is the friendship of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy. Kathy is kind, reserved and a bit naive. Tommy is emotional as a child but learns to control his emotions as he grows up thanks in part to the kindness of Kathy and to the attention of a guardian named Miss Lucy. Ruth is what I would call a “queen bee.” She is a leader but often jealous and bossy. She has a vivid imagination and wants very much to be recognized by her teachers, other students, and later the “veterans” at the farm commune known as the Cottages. While Kathy is sometimes bothered by things Ruth says and does, she ultimately forgives and tries to maintain their friendship. Ruth has been a ringleader since they were little and was the one to invite Kathy into her games, which seemed to involve Ruth controlling everything about how they are played. Ruth can be quite possessive, particularly in her relationships.
After leaving Hailsham, the three friends spend a year or so together at the Cottages and it is there that their friendship starts to unravel. Only many years later, when Kathy becomes a carer for Ruth and then for Tommy does the truth about their past come to light. I won’t further spoil by revealing what these truths are, but one is left asking, “What was the point?” The characters ask this question, as does the reader. I suppose Ishiguro’s point is that all of life is about growing up, losing your innocence and getting ready for death. At least, that’s what one reviewer thinks, and it makes sense, I suppose, but it left me a bit disappointed.