Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Never Let Me Go is one of those rare science fiction novels to have been whole heartedly embraced by the literary establishment, perhaps to the greatest extent since Margaret Atwood’s wonderful The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel this work reminded me a lot of. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, Never Let Me Go does not wear it’s science fiction setting on its sleeve, and isn’t really about big sci-fi ideas and high concepts. Unlike Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro tentatively accepts the science fiction label, which certainly endears me to him (I’ve never been happy with the way Atwood rejects the sci-fi label, considering that she’s written some of the best science fiction novels in the last thirty years). Quibblings about genre aside, Never Let Me Go is a great novel, and Ishiguro uses it’s science fiction setting to explore some big ideas and craft a truly compelling narrative.
Never Let Me Go is not set in the future, instead in a sort of parallel England in the 1990s. In this England, human cloning for the harvesting of organs has been an accepted science for decades. Ishiguro doesn’t really go into much detail about the history of this world, and we’re only given a few tantalising details about the culture of this setting. The early 90s setting is important, as this is a story that simply couldn’t function with the internet. The clones are treated well for their short lives, becoming carers in their adulthood for those who have begun donating their organs, before becoming donors themselves. Most die by their third donation, although some last to their fourth. It’s a system as elegant as it is cruel.
The protagonist of the novel, in whose first person narrative the story is told, is Kathy H, a clone in her early thirties, coming to the end of a lengthy carer career. Kathy recalls her life up until the present, particularly the love triangle relationship between herself, the honest and sensitive Tommy and her insecure and cruel best friend Ruth. Much of the novel recalls their time as children at Hailsham, a school for the clones, and the strange culture which formed there, aware of what their future holds, yet wilfully ignorant as well. The novel is fundamentally focused upon the relationship between its three leads, yet also contains strong mystery element as we discover more and more about the ongoing conflicts regarding the clones.
Never Let Me Go is a well structured story, told in an interesting way. Although the story is broadly chronological, Kathy often goes off onto tangents for entire chapters and it gives the novel a good stream of consciousness feel. Far from being irritating, as it could easily have been, it only serves to reinforce the startling humanity and believability of Kathy as a narrator. By and large the story is interesting, although there’s a little too much of ‘young women being awful to each other’, which after Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye I’m a little bit exhausted by. Despite this though, most of the story is captivating, and it’s not difficult to get utterly invested. There really isn’t much of a focus on the science fiction element, and what we do learn is mostly through a massive exposition dump towards the end which feels rather clumsy, but this is a novel fundamentally about relationships, and this is where Ishiguro succeeds best.
Ishiguro creates a really great sense of place in the first half of the novel, set in the clone school Hailsham, which doesn’t quite manage to be born out as the novel goes on. Perhaps this is intentional; much is made of the lingering effect their time at Hailsham has had on their lives, and the rest of the novel feels vaguely dreamlike and ethereal. Ishiguro knows how to tug at the heartstrings, and delivers some really beautiful moments in the novel between its leads. I was never quite able to buy this strange relationship, but it’s undeniable that Ishiguro does a great job at making you care.
There’s some great characterisation in this novel, and although the characters can seem oblique and confusing, it’s because Kathy doesn’t understand them. We don’t really get much of a picture of what Kathy is really like, but this only lends to the impressive naturalism of the narrative, which manages to avoid resorting to Modernist stream of consciousness gimmicks. By far my favourite aspect of this novel is the way that the clones, who all know what they are, do as best they can to avoid considering the ramifications of what they are. The moments in which the characters do lapse into introspection and fear are utterly heartbreaking, and feel incredibly human. This is really the whole point of the novel, that these clones are human, as human as anyone else, yet burdened as a separate class with a tragic and inevitable destiny.
On one level I really admire Ishiguro and Never Let Me Go, yet I’d be lying if I said that I really enjoyed this novel. Something about it didn’t quite click for me, despite Ishiguro’s excellent prose and an interesting story. Perhaps it was the clear conscious effort to hold back on the science fiction element, something which, despite her prejudices, Margaret Atwood never does. Objectively speaking, yes, this is a good novel, but is it one for fans of science fiction and fantasy? I’m not so sure.