Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is deceptively simple to read. It is not till the end that the full import of this book – and all its larger questions – sinks in.The story starts with Kathy H., an alumna of a seemingly idyllic boarding school called Hailsham. Reflecting on her childhood at Hailsham and her friends, Ruth and Tommy, Kathy unravels the layers of this devastating story.
As Kathy’s narrative unfolds, the sunny reminiscences of Hailsham hold a darker undercurrent, a sense that something is very wrong. This feeling of discomfort steadily increases till the denouement where everything – all the little details – fall chillingly into place.
We learn that the Hailsham children are clones, raised solely to be human organ farms. Their lifespan strictly divided into years that they will spend as carers, followed by a short period as active donors, which will end naturally in “completion” after a number of donations. Amidst this devastating truth, there is the story of the three characters; their childhood and their intertwining relationships.
The author wields his considerable mastery over words – and silences – to great effect. Things implied (but not said), overheard conversations, rumours and murmers populate the book. We learn early on that the children at Hailsham are “special”. There is an unnatural stress on creativity. They also seem strangely isolated from the outside world. There are no parents, families, visits to the town or to shops. And there are things that they are “told but not told”. In the Guardian article, Ishiguro says:
The boarding school setting, I might add, appealed to me because it struck me as a physical manifestation of the way all children are separated off from the adult world, and are drip-fed little pieces of information about the world that awaits them, often with generous doses of deception – kindly meant or otherwise. In other words, it serves as a decent metaphor for childhood in general.
Ishiguro’s prose is detail-rich, sometimes painstakingly so. But this is necessary and if you are patient with the details, you will be well rewarded with the realisation that they add to the larger impact of the book. Ishiguro has the complex task of building a world of ‘non-human’ characters and then rendering them wholly human through the details of their lives. And he has done this with great finesse and sensitivity.
His characters are carefully nuanced. As a narrator, Kathy is thoughtful but not ponderous. More passive as a person than Ruth or Tommy, she skillfully brings Hailsham alive – its boarding school culture and customs, its pavilions and playgrounds – till we can almost forget that this is no normal boarding school. Through her, Ishiguro also describes Ruth and Tommy, their individual natures, vividly. We can picture them as childhood friends; we eagerly await their reappearance in Kathy’s life. Their jealousies, rivalries, fetishes, strangenesses and loves are all conveyed with materful subtlety, but they are conveyed. By the end, we feel for Kathy, Ruth and Tommy. They could be us.
Which is what makes the central questions that Ishiguro is asking – on humanity, soul, freedom and the dangers of science – more potent. The fact that this is set in a world that is immediately recognisable makes it even more effective as commentary. He has said:
I was never tempted to set it in the future. Personally, I don’t find futuristic landscapes very enticing. I don’t have the energy to imagine all those details – what cars or shops or cupholders will be like in the future. And I didn’t want to write anything that could be mistaken for a “prophecy”. I wanted my novel to be one in which any reader might find an echo of his or her own life.
Strikingly, there is a sense of quiet acceptance that permeates the book. In Ishiguro’s world, the characters do not even contemplate escaping or rebelling against the terrible destiny pre-ordained for them. They are almost completely resigned and only in a couple of scenes does he allow them to spill into rage or protest. The feeling, mostly, is one of of sadness. This is the way things are, he is saying. This is the world we have built. And look how sad it is.
I could finally see the story I’d been looking for: something simple, but very fundamental, about the sadness of the human condition.
This sums up what remains with you long after you finish the book. Yes, it is a story about how far we can go in our bid to harness science. A story that questions what ‘human’ is, and who gets to decide. A story that talks about how childhood has value, no matter what comes later. A story of friendship, love, betrayal and forgiveness. But ultimately, as the author said, it is a story about the sadness of the human condition.