More than five years after first reading it, I decided to once again pick up Kazuo Ishiguro’s critically-acclaimed novel Never Let Me Go. A surprisingly dark coming-of-age story about three friends growing up in England – first at a progressive and arts-focused private school called Hailsham, and later in a group of isolated cottages – before going their separate ways and reuniting as adults.The story is told from the point of view of Kathy H., as she looks back on her childhood and adolescence while working as a “carer” in late 1990s England. Kathy’s job involves a lot of solitary driving so she finds she has time to reminisce and think fondly of growing up with her two best friends, Ruth and Tommy.
The three friends seem like ordinary enough children, but there are some glaring questions and gaps that begin to arise as the story progresses. Each character is introduced with an initial rather than a full surname, and there is never any mention of parents, summer vacations, or any home outside of Hailsham.
The reason for these omissions becomes apparent fairly early on in the story, the students of Hailsham are clones that have been created to donate their organs when they become adults. Hailsham is a place that clothes, feeds, and educates these children, while closely monitoring their health and enforcing strict rules against smoking and other potentially damaging activities.
We learn that this story takes place in a universe where cloning and organ donations have rid the world of almost all disease, and that life-expentancy for non-cloned humans is well over the age of 100. Of course this creates the logistical and ethical dilemmas of how to raise cloned babies to adulthood. Apparently Hailsham is a part of a progressive experiment to nurture clones and encourage them to create, to see whether or not they have got souls, by encouraging creative expression through art, poetry and drama.
The brilliant thing about this novel is that the reader does not need any convincing that Kathy and her friends are humans just like any other. We are pulled right into their world and have no choice but to empathize with them. We go through Kathy’s everyday struggles of childhood and adolescence, we get to know Ruth and Tommy’s very distinct personalities, all while taking in their worldview and going along for the ride.
Ishiguro does an amazing job of revealing the central plot point to the reader in the same gradual and organic way that the main characters learn and then come to terms with their identities and futures. We frequently forget or don’t care that the children don’t have parents, just as they are not entirely concerned with the fact that they were copied from someone else, though they are aware of it. We forget that they will one day have to die in order to keep someone else alive. Just like the characters, we are “told and not told” about what the future really holds.
Reading this book again, more than five years after I first picked it up was very enjoyable. To be honest it was certainly a slower read than I remember, but it was interesting to see which pieces of it stuck with me and what parts I forgot. I had remembered that this was a book about children and clones and organ donations, but I didn’t remember the characters’ names or details of the narrative progression. Part of the joy of rereading a book years later is noticing just how much you’ve forgotten, and observing parts of the story that feel entirely new.