*There are spoilers in the review.
What begins as a seemingly naive story about the character’s childhood and teenage years at a boarding school slowly reveals its quite horrifying, but not unbelievable, truth about the characters. Set in the late 1990s*, Never Let Me Go is narrated by Kathy H., a thirty-one year old carer, who reminisces about her school years at Hailsham. In the beginning, Kathy tells us that she recently came back into contact with Ruth, her childhood best friend, when Kathy became Ruth’s carer after her first donation. Take these terms as you understand them and try not to think about them too much. Their true meaning will be eventually revealed.
Kathy remembers her time at Hailsham with Ruth and Tommy. The three were good friends and have seemingly grown up together. There is the typical playground politics between the students. Kathy and Ruth’s friendship is fraught with those moments of who has the upper hand with Ruth, and her rather brash and strong personality, always coming out on top. At Hailsham, the students learned the usual subjects while there is particular emphasis on art. Art was the most important subject and students’ reputation was defined by their artistic skills. Each month, a woman known as Madame would come into the school and pick out the best art to take away with her to hang in her rumoured gallery. The students were never told where their art were taken to.
In their last years at Hailsham, the students were given classes on what was to be expected out in the real world once they leave Hailsham and here the truth about the students slowly become clearer. During a class, one of the more liberal teachers, Miss Lucy, explained to them that they are not like everybody else:
‘You’ve been told, but none of you really understand, and I dare say, some people are quite happy to leave it that way … Your lives are set out for you. You’ll become adults, then before you’re old, before you’re even middle-aged, you’ll start to donate your vital organs. That’s what each of you was created to do. You’re not like the actors you watch on your videos, you’re not even like me. You were brought into this world for a purpose, and your futures, all of them, have been decided.’ – p. 80
The truth is out but it seems that all the students somehow knew it already. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy leave Hailsham and go to the Cottages where they reside until they decide they are ready to start their training as carers.
The relationship between the trio becomes somewhat like a love triangle. Ruth and Tommy are dating but Tommy and Kathy are more compatible. The friendship between Ruth and Kathy, while it seems extremely tight knit, tension always seems to be simmering underneath and it is really a quite toxic friendship. Ruth is quite unlikeable. The trio disintegrate after one quite explosive afternoon and Kathy doesn’t see Ruth and Tommy again until she becomes Ruth’s carer.
As realistically Ishiguro wrote the tempestuous adolescent relationships, I was much more fascinated and struck by the whole ethical concept of organ donation and what Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are. They are, in fact, clones of other people. These characters, people, were designed to be walking and living organ farms and that was their sole purpose in ‘life’. Once they were called up to start donating, they don’t stop until they ‘complete’. In other words, they donate their organs until there is nothing left or their body can no longer sustain the operations. Those that survive to their fourth donation are treated like rock stars. The likes of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy frightened the rest of the population. Many believed they had no souls and were simply empty beings which is why art played such an important role because it demonstrated that was something ‘human’ within. While Kathy showed that they had feelings, temptations, and dreams just like every other natural person, I felt, and I’m assuming Ishiguro intended it as such, that something was lacking in Kathy’s narrative. It was all somewhat flat.
Never Let Me Go is a very unique read and raises so many relevant questions. The characters are all brilliant although I really did despise Ruth and wanted to smack her in the head. One pressing question is why the powers that be, whoever it was that looked after all these clones, weren’t afraid that they would hurt themselves either by getting into a car accident or by suicide if they were really resentful. None of the donors expressed resentment at being forced to donate, that their lives is absolutely meaningless and that it was never their own. Of course, the easy answer would be that they were designed that way. The human factor in clones and sustainable organ donation – this leaves you lots to think about.
* Alternate 1990s, of course.