It’s England, late 1990s. In the beginning Kathy H., “Kath,” tells us that she is 31 years old and has been a “carer” for eleven years. She is a good carer, she boasts, and even gets to choose her “donors” sometimes.
“Carer” and “donor.” It may be the 1990s, but we quickly understand this is not our history or the world as we know it.
At first when Kath speaks of Hailsham, I pictured a private school, then an orphanage. But no, the world has taken a major leap after World War II, “in the early fifties, when the great breakthroughs in science followed one after the other so rapidly, there wasn’t time to take stock.” You’ve heard of Dolly the sheep, Idaho Gem, and Cc the cat? Say hello to Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy H.
In an interview, Kazuo Ishiguro, author of Never Let Me Go, said that he was primarily interested in how the characters try to find their way in the world, how they try to make sense of their lives, and “to what extent can they transcend their fate.”
One third of the way through the book we get the first solid reveal when one of the slightly rebellious teachers tells her students (of which there are dozens at Hailsham and more at other residences, but we are never told if their numbers run in the thousands or hundreds of thousands):
“Your lives have been set out for you. None of you will be going to America, none of you will be film stars. And none of you will be working in supermarkets as I heard some of you planning the other day.” Instead, before even middle age, these planned people will become donors and continue to donate until they “complete,” as in cease to exist.
As a result, Kath says:
“…you realize that you really are different to them; that there are people out there, like Madam, who don’t hate you or wish you any harm, but who nevertheless shudder at the very thought of you—of how you were brought into this world and why—and who dread the idea of your hand brushing against theirs. The first time you glimpse yourself through the eyes of a person like that, it’s a cold moment.”
The problem I have with Ishiguro’s story is that though the characters discuss their fate, and one girl even dreams of working in a shiny, modern office (a dream which she doesn’t attempt to fulfill), the students don’t try to make sense of their lives or find their way in the world. What they do is go along. Sometimes questions are raised, but Ishiguro conveniently has Kath say in various ways and in response to various situations, “there was surprisingly little discussion.” So, you’ve just written a scene that creates a bit of a dust up amidst the characters, which could lead to new insights, knowledge, action, drama, but…no. Ishiguro, in a single sentence, creates a dead end, time and again.
But I had questions: were no students upset to hear that they might as well not dream since they will never be allowed to reach for their dreams? None of the kids feel rebellious when they learn they won’t survive past middle age? No one feel compelled to act out?
The students seem to be able to care and attach themselves to each other via friendships and boyfriends or girlfriends. Sex is not condemned—sex ed. is openly taught—as long as they are safe and stay healthy, but all students are purposely infertile and getting married, and having careers and lives of their own are out of the question. They feel the range of “normal” emotions supposedly, yet no one cares that they don’t have a future? A future of their own making?
Once kids “graduate” from Hailsham, they go onto the intermediary residences like the Cottages (prior to their “purpose”: training to become a carer and eventually a donor) where they hang out, have sex, read, chat, and not work on some essay that is mentioned as a rather large, important project but then gets ignored—with no explanation for its necessity or repercussions for not completing it. At the Cottages, no adult supervision is on site, just a curmudgeon who stops by periodically to bring supplies. The kids are only 16 to 18 years old.
The second years or “veterans” do go on outings into town or even 2-3 days away (doing more unexplained things), yet no one gets sloshed at the local pub? If there’s no way to tell these “students” apart from the “normal” folk, why don’t any friendships and relationships blossom between them? No mistaken identity issues? Kath mentions that the students are wary of the “outside world,” yet not a single kid breaks a rule or goes over an invisible line? Ishiguro doesn’t tell us how this altered universe keeps these kids in line and the way Ishiguro has Kath describe the world in which she lives, it seems familiar, a mirror of our world—except for this one scientific “breakthrough,” the science that has created these people.
Once they are carers—caring for the carers who’ve moved on to become donors and are recovering from surgery, such as a “donation” of a liver—these young adults are out in the world. They travel, driving from donor to donor, and they interact with nurses and doctors at hospitals, and they eat in restaurants. And yet, not one carer thinks about, considers, or pines to be a doctor, a restaurateur, or a store owner? Is this lack of drive and ambition a result of the procedure that created them? Like a built-in Xanax? Is it that he or she is the same person as the model (or “possible” as the students call them), but with a personality that’s flat-lined and devoid of drive, fortitude, and perseverance? We never know because not one student in the book tries to break free and escape his or her path, or at least we don’t hear of someone doing this because the story is told in first person from Kath’s point of view—and she just goes along. The one time she tries to change her path and finds that the option she was hoping for doesn’t exist in actuality, she simply resigns herself to the “purpose.” Kath has no thought of trying something else or even running away—even though we don’t learn of any check points, military installations, or excessive big brother tactics that keep her under observation or that would impede any attempt to escape.
Never Let Me Go has some worthwhile moments, but the story is flawed and the writing isn’t memorable: “I want to talk about the Norfolk trip, and all the things that happened that day, but I’ll first have to go back a bit, to give you the background and explain why it was we went.” This beginning of an incident only to back track happens repeatedly and stalls the story. And when a story is an enigma (what is this new world?), leading the reader with a tease then going back ten steps to set up the scene is tiresome. The lack of engaging, lyrical, or poetic prose also emphasizes the fact that not a lot happens.
Kath isn’t the deepest or most intuitive of observers, and I wished, as I was reading, that Ishiguro had made her so—how did Kath feel stepping out into the world after a lifetime (“birth” to 16 years old) of seclusion at Hailsham? How did she feel the first time she spoke with a regular human? Did she ever wish for their life, their chances, their opportunities? Kath could feel annoyance and confusion, but over her lifetime she never experienced anguish, despair, or exultation? Is Ishiguro saying that Kath and her cohorts are human in some ways but not in others? Half of something without explanation doesn’t make sense, for the story or for the characters.
Ishiguro fails to flesh out the very reasons (page one, paragraph four) that she says triggered and provoked her interest in writing Never Let Me Go:
- How do the characters try to find their way in the world? They don’t. They just “go along” and tow the line.
- How do the characters try to make sense of their world? They don’t. They accept it as their fate. They go along and tow the line.
- To what extent can they transcend their fate? To no extent at all. Ninety-nine percent don’t even try and with those that make an effort, it is a half-hearted effort and quickly abandoned when not easily attained.
Ishiguro may have aimed to probe these universal questions, questions that these scientifically created beings as well as ourselves must confront on a daily basis, but he offers no enlightenment, no cause for further discussion, and ultimately the reader is left wanting.
As a counterpoint, M John Harrison of The Guardian reviewed Never Let Me Go in 2005, calling it “extraordinary” and “rather frighteningly clever.” Ishigo, he says, has a “pathological need to be subtle” and the novel is about “why we don’t explode, why we don’t just wake up one day and go sobbing and crying down the street, kicking everything to pieces of the raw, infuriating, completely personal sense of our lives never having been what they could have been.”
All photos, except Ishiguro portrait, are from the movie version of the novel by Fox Searchlight, released in 2010, starring Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, and Andrew Garfield.