Never Let Me Go saved me. Okay, not in any kind of religious, spiritual, or moral way, or any really significant way at all. What I mean is, Never Let Me Go saved my reading habits. I was getting dragged down in a murky mire of dull, self-indulgent autobiographies; over-rated, tiresome fiction; and lackluster, forced comedies when I picked Kazuo Ishiguro's novel off the shelves of the Marlyebone Oxfam shop, stuck the sale sticker over Kiera Knightley's chin on the cover, and promptly spent the next 12 hours devouring all 282 pages. I thought I'd left that kind of reading back in my childhood.
Our heroine and narrator is Kathy H., introduced to us as an adult nurse, but Kathy soon takes us back to her childhood at Hailsham, a mysterious boarding school hidden somewhere in the English countryside, a school that places an unusual emphasis on its students' artistic abilities and prepares them for an unusual and secretive future. Kathy recalls her friendship with two other students, Ruth and Tommy, and gradually the secret of Hailsham is revealed through Kathy's controlled, gentle, but absorbing narration. Ishiguro is a master of narratological technique; his quietly beautiful novel The Remains of the Day reads like an exercise in how to create a flawless first person narrative, wherein glimpses of a story are only caught through biased narration.
Don't read the following paragraph if you don't want to know the secret of the story. Never Let Me Go is slowly revealed to be a dystopian story of a future in which clones are bred so that once they are grown, they may donate their organs to humans in need, and Kathy, Tommy, Ruth, and the other students of Hailsham are these clones. After graduation each student will spend some time as a care-giver for their fellow donor clones, and then be sent to donate, and sometime after their third or fourth donation, they will "complete", a tidy euphamism for dying. Kathy learns that the artistic focus of Hailsham was an effort to prove to public that the clones had souls, art being a glimpse into the soul. The headmistress of the school hoped that in proving to the outside world that the clones had souls, they would be continue to be treated well. Kathy also learns that the students at Hailsham were lucky. Most other clone schools around the country treated their students like nothing more than machines and kept them in deplorable conditions.
Why was the story so compelling for me? I'm struggling to put it down on paper. Kathy's voice is calm and measured and quiet, but her character is memorable and sympathetic. She is set off against the compelling Ruth, who is initially power-driven, selfish, and well, ruthless, but evolves to be, not cuddly, but more vulnerable and ultimately generous. The story itself is compelling and expertly revealed, and the backdrop of windy English seaside towns and sweeping countryside supports a story that is mournful and wistful but at the same time resigned in tone. Ishiguro forces us to confront the fact that we are facing "a new world coming rapidly. More scientific, efficient, yes. More cures for the old sicknesses. Very good. But a harsh, cruel world....the old kind world...could not remain."
Perhaps part of what I found so compelling about the story is something that I may be pulling out of thin air. I I could not stop making a comparison between the students of Hailsham and animals farmed for human consumption. Those of you who know me, or who read my other blog Spinach, will know that I am an ethical vegan, so I'm probably a little biased in my reading of the novel. What's more, I have scoured the Internet in search of evidence that Ishiguro is the slightest bit interested in animal rights, and I've found nothing. However, the novel certainly addresses our perceptions of what human means, and what it means to have moral value in society, but I also found very practical parallels between the world of animal agriculture and the clones. In both situations we are dimly aware that most of beings in question are kept in deplorable conditions, wherein "you wouldn't sleep for days if you saw what still goes on in some of those places." In both situations we have welfarist efforts to improve the treatment of the being; Hailsham students are treated well in comparision to other organisations. However, in both situations we cannot get away from the fact that sentient beings are being born, raised, and killed for human purposes. After graduating from Hailsham, Tommy, who was criticised for his lack of artistic ability in school, begins to make small sketches of animals with mechanical insides in the belief that the drawings might be able to earn him a few more years of life. The students of Hailsham are told that art "reveals what you are like on the inside." What is on the inside of Tommy? Animals. Viewed as machines.
Okay, apparently my interpretation of the book is wrong, and I'm digressing. Regardless, Never Let Me Go is a beautiful, haunting novel that stayed with me for many days. It's so good, I'm even willing to watch a movie adaptation with Kiera Knightley in it. I can think of no higher compliment.