Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is not what it first seems to be. Set up initially as a wistful remembrance of a childhood in boarding schools, with an apparent destination of an adulthood encounter that brings old wounds to the surface, it turns out that it’s a drama of ethics within a romantic tragedy.
And if you want to read this book, I suggest that you stop here and go pick it up. There’s no way I can write about Never Let Me Go without revealing an early, major plot twist, and the experience of reading the novel will be much more enjoyable if you either figure it out (it’s not that hard) or if you come let the big revelation take you by surprise.
It turns out that Never Let Me Go is set in an alternate universe that is very much like our own but for one detail: Human clones are created and raised to adulthood so that their vital organs may be harvested for donations to conventionally-created humans. The three central characters, including the narrator, are all such clones, being raised in one of the few enlightened wards for these human livestock, and the narrator takes us back to their childhood, then adolescence (including the time when they learn their ultimate fate), then to the period of their “donations.”
The novel’s two parts – the dystopic horror story and the romantic tragedy – are perfectly integrated, but they weren’t equally effective. The romantic tragedy fell short for me; Kathy, her moody and often malicious friend Ruth, and the slightly simple but passionate Tommy end up in a sort of love triangle, and we’re to understand that Kathy and Tommy are in love with each other but are kept apart to a degree by Ruth. That feeling never came through in the characters’ words or actions, or even Kathy’s thoughts; she and Tommy are clearly friends, with a bond stronger than that between Tommy and Ruth, who are an actual couple during part of their time in boarding school and their time in the “cottages” where they spend their college-aged years. Kathy’s feelings towards Tommy seem to range from friendship to an almost older sister/younger brother dynamic, but romantic love didn’t come through until the two do become a couple as adults, when Tommy has begun his donations and Kathy is a “carer,” a visiting nurse to donors who will eventually begin her donations after a few years in carer service.
On the other hand, the quasi-morality play which Ishiguro presents to the reader is powerful and disturbing. The clones themselves seem to accept their fate without overtly questioning it – Ruth at one point asks, “It’s what we’re supposed to be doing, isn’t it?” – yet they show clear signs of humanity as well, falling in love and hoping they can find a way to defer their donation periods to enjoy a brief period with their mates, thinking and dreaming about living normal lives with normal jobs (Ruth dreams of having a routine 9-to-5 office job), and looking for the “possible” from whom they were cloned (much as an adopted or abandoned child might look for his/her biological parents). There are even discussions of whether the clones themselves have “souls” – Ishiguro seems to presume that they do, at least within the story’s context – and we see glimpses of the ethical discussions that go on in the fictional world of how to treat these clones: as people or as livestock (my word, not Ishiguro’s). Ishiguro even presents us with an argument that might sound very familiar to anyone who is squeamish about the idea of meat and poultry coming from the deaths of living creatures when he has one of the school’s teachers explain that people want organs to save the lives of their loved ones so long as they don’t have to know anything about where the organs come from.
It’s an uncomfortable read, but despite the slight failure of the romantic tragedy to capture my interest, it’s a riveting one that you probably won’t be able to put down once you’ve started it. I couldn’t, even though at times I wanted to once I realized that something was seriously amiss in the novel’s world, and that these characters were, by and large, just accepting their fates. It will force you to consider questions you’d rather not try to answer, because to many of them, you won’t find answers you like.