Kazuo Ishiguro?s twisted award-winning 2005 novel is one of the best I?ve ever read. Here?s why.
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Never Let Me Go tells of a society where clones are educated and brought up solely to provide their vital organs for regular people in the world. The novel is told in first person, past tense, double-I from the perspective of a woman named Kathy, one of the clones who is reflecting on her life story. The book takes place over three parts. In the first part, Kathy and her two best friends Ruth and Tommy live in an idyllic location in England called Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school where they live year-round, never to leave and explore past specific fences around the property. Strange occurrences start to irk Kathy even from a young age, where she notices the strange teachers staring at her in her room, and listens to stories about the gruesome murders of students who made it out of the school grounds.
It is in the second part, where the trio has finally left the school for a place called the Cottages, where Ruth and Tommy begin a romance and Kathy starts to realize the true nature of their lives. It turns out that everyone who started at Hailsham are effectively clones who were created specifically to donate their organs to regular people in need. By their late teens, they all know this but they continue living their lives the best they can, even when Ruth is chosen as an early donor, The three spend some more time together, reflecting on their memories of Hailsham, until Ruth becomes weaker and weaker, and then the worst imaginable outcome occurs, leaving the characters at a place that feels both tragic and inevitable.
The novel has four important themes, all of which make the narrative richer and more complex than many of the novels I have read so far for my annotated bibliography. The first theme is Mysterious Existence. From the beginning of the novel, there?s something unusual about the existence of the three central characters ? Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy ? and even though Ishiguro doesn?t reveal exactly what the horrific nature of the existence is until a third way through, there are subtle clues early on to show the reader not everything is what it seems. At one point young Tommy asks,
?But all this, what you?re saying, it sort of fits with a lot of other things that are puzzling. I keep thinking about these things. Like why Madame comes and takes away our best pictures. What?s that for exactly??
Not even teenagers yet, the students at Hailsham are already starting to question why weird things are happening and what the reason is behind all the secrets. And there?s the eerie tone early on, moments that already verge on horror, like in this moment:
I can still see it now, the shudder she seemed to be suppressing, the real dread that one of us would accidentally brush against her. And though we kept on walking, we all felt it; it was like we?d walked from the sun right into the chilly shade. Ruth had been right: Madame was afraid of us.
Why is one of the teachers at this boarding school afraid of the students? Ishiguro doesn?t provide easy answers until later, giving the beginning chapters of the novel an effective quality of dread. And after the characters discover that they are clones designed only to donate their organs, questions about their existence still emerge, the line between a human life and an artificial life always a fine one.
The second major theme of the novel is Perils of Friendship. Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy aren?t best buddies all the way through the book. They struggle, they fight, Ruth and Tommy begin a whirlwind romance as Kathy watches on from afar. Even though they?re clones, they still have ups and downs in their relationships the same way humans do. Ishiguro writes,
So once Ruth had said what she?s said, I wasn?t able, in my usual way, to let the emotional flurry just past. I just stared at her, making no attempt to disguise my anger.
This example not only shows Kathy?s development into a more fully-developed ?person? but also her insistence to not let other people walk all over her. Ruth is cruel to Kathy at times, like when she says,
?You?re upset because I?ve managed to move on, make new friends. Some of the veterans hardly remember your name, and who can blame them? You never talk to anyone unless they?re Hailsham.?
Ruth feels stronger at times when she makes Kathy feel weak, but despite all their problems, the three main characters always manage to come together in times of adversity. Ishiguro writes,
She was, strictly speaking, still conscious, but she wasn?t accessible to me as I stood there beside her metal bed. All the same, I pulled up a chair and sat with her hand in both of mine, squeezing whenever another flood of pain made her twist away from me.
No matter the perils of their friendship, they are able to stick together up to Ruth?s sad, horrific death.
The third theme is the Pursuit of Art. This theme plays a major role in the novel?s first part, and then there is a surprising pay-off for it at the end. Tommy is obsessed with making art, as Ishiguro says in this example:
The harder he tried, the more laughable his efforts turned out. So before long Tommy had gone back to his original defense, producing work that seemed deliberately childish.
The hobby seems playful at first, but then it comes out later why the artwork produced by the student is so important. Naturally Kathy and others ask why the teachers at Hailsham bother with things like art, when the students are going to be donating vital organs by the time they?re in their twenties and thirties and won?t be around very long anyway. But it turns out the art is created for an important purpose:
?Suppose two people come up and say they?re in love. She finds the art they?ve done over years and years. She can see if they go. If they match. Don?t forget, Kath, what she?s got reveals our souls.?
The whole idea behind the art is for the teachers to see if these clones have souls, a creepy idea that plays beautifully throughout the novel.
The last major theme is Fixation on Sex. Do clones have sex? Should they? How does it work? Other authors may have shied away from this subject matter even in a science fiction horror world like this one, but Ishiguro sticks on the theme often throughout the text, with the major characters equally fascinated by it. He writes,
Looking back now, I can see that we were pretty confused about this whole area around sex. That?s hardly surprising, I suppose, given we were barely sixteen. But what added to the confusion was the fact that the guardians were themselves confused.
Everybody?s confused by the sex, because it?s not like these clones could ever produce a child, so what is it really for? Fun? Are clones allowed to just have some frivolous fun? These questions come up time and time again in the text. Ruth ultimately realizes sex can be great if it?s with someone you care about, as she tells Kathy in this example:
?Once you find someone, Kath, someone you really want to be with, then it could be really good.?
This quote also plays into the Perils of Friendship theme, because Kathy secretly wants to be with Tommy, while Ruth and Tommy are not only carrying on a long-term relationship, but also having sex and talking about it. These two themes and the others previously mentioned add to the complexity of this outstanding novel.
Why I Love This Novel
Never Let Me Go is outstanding in almost every way, a riveting and thought-provoking read from beginning to end that works as coming-of-age, as dystopian science fiction, and as dread-inducing horror. It also works beautifully as a literary novel.
What do I define as literary? In the research I?ve done into literary fiction, I have found a few common elements, but I would say first and foremost the author of a literary novel pays more attention to character development than plot. The novel will often have a clear narrative, but the focus is not chapter cliffhangers or scenes that serve no other purpose than to get the reader to the next. Author Ishiguro tells a fascinating tale in this novel, but he never rushes the plot, and always takes time to develop his three main characters. He writes early on,
[Tommy] was a good runner, and would quickly open up ten, fifteen yards between him and the rest, maybe thinking this would disguise the fact that no one wanted to run with him.
This is just one sentence taken from nearly a page of details about Tommy and his backstory, which other authors may have glazed over to get the plot more in motion. Another example concerns Kathy, who is telling us the story, and who allows time for reflection:
There?s a particular memory I have of sitting by myself one evening on one of the benches outside the pavilion, trying over and over to think of some way out, while a heavy mix of remorse and frustration brought me virtually to tears.
If this were merely a popular novel, there wouldn?t be these kinds of quiet moments that flash back to times of uncertainty, moments where the character just sits and reflects. It?s moments like these that make the novel all the richer.
I often find large timespans in literary novels, and Never Let Me Go is no exception. It depicts at least fifteen years of the core trio?s lives, showing in depth three different periods. Ishiguro writes,
But I realize now just how much of what occurred later came out of our time at Hailsham, and that?s why I want first to go over these earlier memories quite carefully.
The narrative is being told from one place in time from Kathy as she writes, but going into several important time periods give the novel more weight than if, say, Ishiguro had only focused on the trio as adults.
And, of course, the quality of the prose itself is of prime importance in a literary novel ? something written sloppily and flat could never be considered literary no matter how great the character development or large timespan ? and Never Let Me Go is filled with stunning, heartbreaking prose. It?s written in the first person from Kathy, so there are no long passages of sweeping, romanticized prose that one may find in a literary novel told in third person omniscient, but the writing is always glorious, like in this example toward the end:
I was thinking about the rubbish, the flapping plastic in the branches, the shore-line of odd stuff caught along the fencing, and half-closed my eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I?d ever lost since my childhood had washed up.
I like this example a lot because the first half of the sentence offers complexity in the word choice, with great visual images, and then the second half feels a little more down-to-earth, since this is reflection from a character, after all, and not prose strictly from Ishiguro himself. He never goes overboard with the prose, and rightly so: the POV has to be honored at all times.
Another element of I loved about Never Let Me Go was its subtle use of horror and suspense. Some may argue that it?s not a horror novel. Coming-of-age, sure, and science fiction, okay, but horror? Although I agree that Never Let Me Go is not horror the way many Stephen King books are obviously horror, this is absolutely a novel about a horrific circumstance that can?t be avoided no matter how much the main characters want to, and Ishiguro provides enough suspense and terrifying images to suggest that there?s something dreadfully frightening about this world. Sometimes it?s just in the small details, like this one:
Tommy had been told of a student who?d gone to sleep with a cut on the elbow just like his and woken up to find his whole upper arm and hand skeletally exposed.
The stories the Hailsham students are told about what happens when they go outside the school boundaries show just what evil can be done when the rules are broken. The idea of the Possibles also adds horror to the novel. We learn early on that the students of Hailsham are clones made from actual human beings already living the world, as Ishiguro writes,
Since each of us was copied at some point from a normal person, there must be, for each of us, somewhere out there, a model getting on with his or her life. That meant, at least in theory, you?d be able to find the person you were modeled from.
At one point in the novel, Ruth sees her own Possible, the real person she was cloned from, and they try to get a closer look. He writes,
Her hair was darker than Ruth?s ? though it could have been dyed ? and she had it tied back in a simple pony-tail the way Ruth usually did.
Imagine living your life thinking you are a human being, only to discover you?re a clone of someone else, and then you inadvertently see that person when you?re out and about; I can?t think of anything closer to horror. In the third part of the novel, the horror really comes to light after Ruth?s untimely death, and then Kathy?s realization that Tommy?s going to die to. Ishiguro writes,
But with the summer drawing to an end, with Tommy getting stronger, and the possibility of notice for his fourth donation growing ever more distinct, we knew we couldn?t keep putting things off indefinitely.
There?s the sense that time is running out at this point in the book, giving the final scenes an unbearable suspense. And there?s the one true moment of horror in the second-to-last scene, after Kathy and Tommy realize that they can?t delay the inevitable for one more day, and Tommy needs Kathy to stop the car. Ishiguro writes,
That?s why I was still in the car, wondering whether to move it a little further up the hill, when I heard the first scream.
And then, she sees him:
The moon wasn?t quite full, but it was bright enough, and I could make out in the mid-distance, near where the field began to fall away, Tommy?s figure, raging, shouting, flinging his fists and kicking out.
This moment to me is more terrifying than most any image I?ve read of late in a more conventional horror novel. There?s no bloody death or frightening monster; it?s the horror of a realization that you?re about to die, and there?s nothing you can do about it, that makes this scene both horrific and incredibly sad.
Besides the literary and horror elements, the novel features fantastic use of setting and dialogue. One of my biggest weaknesses as a writer is in capturing setting, and Ishiguro does it well right off the top:
Driving around the country now, I still see things that remind me of Hailsham. I might pass the corner of a misty field, or see part of a large house in the distance as I come down the side of a valley, even a particular arrangement of poplar trees up on a hillside.
There?s nothing astonishing about the prose in that sentence, but it gives enough images to allow the reader to clearly see what this place looks like. And then I admired that the dialogue always sound realistic, never forced:
?Just talk to him. You?ve always had this way with him. He?ll listen to you. And he?ll know you?re not bullshitting about me.?
The main characters talk like normal teens, a huge plus. I also liked that Ishiguro revealed early on that they?re clones, and didn?t wait until, say, the final twenty pages to give away the big reveal.
Lastly, the title of the novel is given great emotional weight in one of my favorite scenes, when a young Kathy dances to a song called, ?Never Let Me Go.? Ishiguro writes,
By then, of course, we all knew something I hadn?t known back then, which was that none of us could have babies. It?s just possible I?d somehow picked up the idea when I was younger without fully registering it, and that?s why I heard what I did when I listened to that song.
Young Kathy has no idea she can?t have babies and will not get to live the long life she wants, and so there?s an emotional power to this scene that really comes through.
Brian Rowe is an author, teacher, book devotee, and film fanatic. He received his MFA in Creative Writing and MA in English from the University of Nevada, Reno, and his BA in Film Production from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He writes young adult and middle grade suspense novels, and is represented by Kortney Price of the Corvisiero Agency. You can read more of his work at his website, brianrowebooks.com.