Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go can be read on three levels.
It can be approached as a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of science. It can be seen as a metaphorical examination of slavery and exploitation.
To my mind, though, it is best viewed as a meditation on the human condition.
Which is odd — but, first, let me warn you that I’m going to be talking about some aspects of the novel that are unveiled slowly in its pages.
There are strong hints early, and the outlines of the world in which the characters live are there from the beginning. Nonetheless, if you want to be able to approach Never Let Me Go with completely fresh eyes, you should avoid going any further into this review.
The novel is well worth reading and pondering.
As I was about to say above, it is perhaps a bit odd for me to think of Never Let Me Go as a meditation on the human condition since its three main characters — Kathy H., Tommy D. and Ruth — aren’t human at all.
Or, at least, they aren’t seen that way, or think of themselves that way.
In the first paragraph, Kathy H., the book’s somewhat artless narrator, mentions that she is a carer, and a good one. She explains:
My donors have always tended to do much better than expected. Their recovery times have been impressive, and hardly any of them have been classified as ‘agitated,’ even before fourth donation.
So, within the novel’s first 10 sentences, the reader is introduced to a vaguely unsettling jargon: “carer,” “donor,” “recovery” and “donation.” As the story unfolds, other terms are added to this vocabulary: “possible,” “normal,” “model” and “complete.”
Different darker echoes
These are words that, in our everyday lives, have particular meanings. Here, however, they hold different darker echoes.
Similarly, the “here” in Never Let Me Go seems very much like our everyday world. But it’s not.
Ishiguro has envisioned an alternative existence where, in the aftermath of World War II, scientists made major breakthroughs in defeating cancer, heart disease and other human ailments through the use of clones.
These are a class of people who aren’t people. They are created through an undescribed process so that, as young adults, their organs can be harvested for use in true humans, the normals. As teenagers, Kathy H. and her friends face this future with a gallows humor:
[T]he idea of things ‘unzipping’… [became] a running joke among us about the donations. The idea was that when the time came, you’d be able just to unzip a bit of yourself, a kidney or something would slide out, and you’d hand it over. It wasn’t something we found so funny in itself; it was more a way of putting each other off our food.
Kathy H. and those like her don’t refer to themselves as clones. They seem to have no generic name for their kind. Yet, they are raised with the increasing knowledge of their task in life, and they exhibit no rebellion.
The novel is set in England in the late 1990s, and the use of clones is more than three decades old.
The process is this: They are raised apart from normals, and given schooling that emphasizes the importance of keeping healthy. By their late teens or early twenties, they begin training as carers.
A carer is a kind of a social worker for a caseload of donors. Your tenure in the job can be relatively short if no particular aptitude is shown. By contrast, Kathy H. is 31, and has been a carer for more than 11 years, just about the outer limit of holding that job.
After serving as a carer, you become a donor. From then on, you live in a recovery facility. An organ is removed, you recover, and then it’s time to donate another.
Some “complete” after only the first or second donation. Which is to say, they die. If you make it to the fourth donation, you know that it will result in your completion.
The normal world tries to close its eyes to the harvesting and ultimate killing of these clone people. The process makes possible great health improvements for normals, so, for the most part, uncomfortable questions aren’t asked.
It is in this way that Never Let Me Go is about laboratory breakthroughs gone wrong. And about the victims of an exploitative society who are used and abused because they aren’t fully human. Shades of American slavery.
Yet, Never Let Me Go is more than a metaphorical expose or a science fiction story.
It is about you and me. We aren’t clones, but what Kathy H. and her friends face — the questions about the meaning of their lives, the strength of their relationships, the euphemized death that awaits them — are questions each of us must face.
At one point, when they are teens, Tommy D. finds Kathy H. paging through a pile of pornographic magazines. Watching her, he can tell that she’s not looking at the naked bodies but concentrating from page to page to page to page on the faces of the people.
She is looking for her “possible.”
As they grow to maturity, each clone person, such as Kathy H., realizes that he or she was created from the genetic material of some normal, a “model.” One hope each has, apparently never fulfilled, is to find that model. So, all of them are on the lookout for a “possible,” someone who might be the model of themselves or one of their friends.
Kathy H. is looking in the porn because, now and then, as a young woman, she feels deep, almost overpowering desire for sex. She thinks this is unusual, and figures that she might find a possible in the porn magazines since this trait — so atypical, to her mind — would at least be of use in that line of work.
Also in her mind is a feeling among her friends that their genes haven’t come from the cream of human society. As Ruth rants one day:
“We all know it. We’re modeled from trash. Junkies, prostitutes, winos, tramps. Convicts, maybe, just so long as they’re not psychos. That’s what we come from.”
Kathy H. and her friends are confronting the same questions that every human must face: Who am I? Where did I come from?
Love and loss
Kathy H. and her friends hypothesize the flaws and limitations of their models. You and I, most likely, know the flaws and limitations of our parents.
The questions are the same, though. I am, to some extent, the product of my genes. How much of me is under my control, the result of what I do and how I act?
At the heart of Never Let Me Go is a love triangle of Kathy H., Tommy D. and Ruth.
There is a constraint on the love that the three members are able to share with one to another. The longing for connection that each has is never totally, adequately fulfilled. Death and life are faced alone.
They are clones, but this is the human condition.
A subtext to this novel has to do with a group of do-gooders who are attempting to prove that Kathy H. and those like her have souls.
In their awkward, clumsy love for each other, in their earnest struggles to live each day in a world they don’t and can’t fully understand, they are, except for an accident of creation, just like us.
If we have souls, they do.
Patrick T. Reardon