Can you appreciate a book without particularly liking it? That was my reaction to Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 speculative or experimental or science-fiction novel (read the review then pick your adjective), Never Let Me Go.
Never Let Me Go focuses on three characters – Tommy, Ruth, and the novel’s narrator Kathy H. – who are students at what seems to be an upscale private school called Hailsham in what seems to be England in the 1980s. But something isn’t quite right.
The disquiet begins with the first chapter in which an adult Kathy talks about her work as a “carer” for “donors”. The story quickly returns to Kathy’s childhood at Hailsham where the students are only taught art, where the teachers are called “guardians”, and where not only are parents and the outside world never mentioned, but where they seem to barely exist.
As it turns out, there is a good reason for all these strange facts. The students of Hailsham are clones who are being raised to adulthood for the singular purpose of providing organ donations to “normal” men and women. The last donation is fatal.
And with that realization, we follow Ishiguro down his rabbit hole, and pop up in the world of Kafka or Beckett (as other reviewers have well noted before me); but unlike the fantastical worlds of Gregor Samsa’s middle-class family apartment, or Vladimir and Estragon’s desolate country road, the world of Never Let Me Go never quite achieves a coherent internal logic. Which means I don’t think the novel is an entirely successful experiment.
But before I get to these objections, let me talk about what I think Ishiguro did right.
The Flat Affect of Kathy H. Is Pitch Perfect. And Hard to Take
Kathy H.’s narrative voice in Never Let Me Go is cool – even cold – dispassionate, and elusive. She leaves an enormous amount unsaid about the feelings and experiences of clone donors. They all seem to embrace their fate with a combination of resignation and acceptance. The four stages of donations are not described. Post-operative pain or complications are vaguely acknowledged, at best. Every donor dies off the page. No one knows where the bodies are buried. If they are buried.
Kathy H. describes strong emotions, even in herself, with a matter-of-fact tone that prevents us from feeling them. She doesn’t seem to want our sympathy, and her coolness makes our empathy harder.
But all this seems exactly right. Asking someone to remain alive in feeling who has been bred and raised like cattle; who has helped the people she loves die in the service of a society that treats them as spare parts; and who herself is now facing the same death – all that is too much.
Kathy H. should be shut down as person. And if that makes our empathy harder, then it should be harder, because it is a catastrophic lack of empathy in Never Let Me Go that makes the genocidal slavery of the clones possible.
And I would go further and say since any injustice committed by one human against another has as its foundation a failure of empathy, then the novel pushes us to strengthen the quality which is the solution to its (fantastical) horrors.
Never Let Me Go: An Inadequate Portrait of Human Life
You might think after that statement I don’t have any serious criticisms of Never Let Me Go. But I do.
My first criticism is based on the indications that Ishiguro wants us to understand the experience of Kathy H. and Tommy and Ruth as universal. We know this explicitly from the February 2005 interview Ishiguro gave to The Guardian in which he said:
There are things I am more interested in than the clone thing. How are they trying to find their place in the world and make sense of their lives? To what extent can they transcend their fate? … Most of the things that concern them concern us all.
We also know it implicitly because it is not just Kathy H. who responds to her fate with resignation and acceptance. Every clone responds with resignation and acceptance. If there are variations from these two emotions in the world of Never Let Me Go, we have no report of them.
This is a barren and withered portrait of human life; and while it is an accurate description of some human lives, it is entirely inadequate representation of the human race I know.
That race, too, strives with might and contends with blood. That race, too, loves with a fierceness that will break before it quits. That race, too, rejoices and despairs. That race, too, knows beauty as well as horror. That race, too, seethes for justice in the face of injustice. That race, too, believes beyond all reason, beyond the heavy evidence of experience. That race, too, endures and endures.
Where are these lives too in Never Let Me Go?
Clone Organ Donors: Extraneous and Finally, a Distraction
My other problem with Never Let Me Go is that I think it was a mistake for Ishiguro to situate his science-fiction nightmare in what otherwise appears to be England in the middle-late 20th century.
It would have been fine if Ishiguro had transformed the premise into something more familiar: say a children’s cancer ward in which Kathy H. could have been an orphan and ward of the state, the other characters had dysfunctional families, and so on. Then Ishiguro could still have explored the things in which he says he was most interested without all the fussing with clones.
Or he could have set Never Let Me Go in some dystopian alternate Earth-like world sometime in the past or future, in which it would be easy to accept the clones because that’s what happened in this world. (Think of Panem in The Hunger Games.) That would also have been fine and easy to do.
But as it is in Never Let Me Go, I kept stopping and saying to myself: “Wait, exactly how does this clone-donor society thing work again?”
How did England, barely ten years after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the exposure of the death camps, and the end of the Nurenberg Trials, transform itself from a reasonable progressive Western society – as these things go – into a moral monster? Did the rest of the Allied powers acquiesce or participate? How did England get the entire medical profession to ignore the Hippocratic Oath? Where there no objections from the religious communities? Did anyone object? Who was making money from this? Was there an underground railroad for clones? What was the system of control? As young adults, the clones seem to be able to roam at will. What stopped them from disappearing into society, where they would be indistinguishable from other human beings? Why didn’t the clones go all Rambo on the murderous bastards running the system? As an American, I can name entire states – hello, Texas – that would rise up in violent defense of themselves. How did science perfect cloning months after the discovery of the DNA double helix, but still need another 30 years to invent the Walkman?
Also, I’m not a big fan of the novel of social comment, but the premise clearly suggests that our societies are capable of such actions, but doesn’t go any further with the suggestion. This combination of provocative and perfunctory doesn’t sit well.
Should You Read Never Let Me Go?
Never Let Me Go is two books in many ways. As the story of three people dealing with horrors not at all dissimilar from real ones in the world today, I thought it was pretty good. As a speculative science-fiction novel, it would have needed to speculate much harder and much more thoroughly to be a success