When I read Ishiguro’s “Pale View of the Hills” for editor Moon Rat’s book club, I was so irritated by the gaps in the story that I missed the subtleties and swore I’d never read another book by this author. Luckily, Moon Rat’s February book club discussion raised the veil for me. I thought I’d give Ishiguro another try. And I’m very glad I did!
In “Never Let Me Go” Ishiguro is intense, intriguing and impeccable. From the deceptively child-like narrative style to the precise choice of a single word (donors don’t die, they “complete”), Ishiguro’s mastery is unquestionable. This novel was, quite simply, gripping.
On the surface, the story meanders through the memories of a young woman – Kathy H – who is on the brink of leaving one career for another. From being a “carer” she will soon become a “donor” and, through a series of ordinary reminiscences, a dark, sinister and compelling world is created.
This unsettling novel raises some vital questions about the nature of our world and our humanity. I’ll concentrate on two.
Kathy, Ruth, Tommy and the other “students” live in a protected and privileged environment. Yet it is clear from the start that their future is bleak and inevitable. In the same way that other “students”, who have been brought up in less privileged communities, are doomed to donate vital organs to save the “normals”, so too are the Hailsham graduates.
But, while the manner of dying for all clones is similarly predestined, it is very different to the “normals” for whom their lives are sacrificed. The “normals” have a better chance at living longer, more healthy lives, because of the “completions” of the donors and yet, despite this sacrifice, the students like Kathy and her friends are alienated from, and feared by, the “normals”. Because of their differences, because their existence is perceived as soley to serve the “normals”, their lives are seen as somehow less worthy.
What does this say about humanity and the way our current world can find no compassion, no understanding of those who are so very different to what has been decided is the "norm"? Or for a world in which animals - like humans, also sentient beings - are bred solely to feed/serve humans? To me, Ishiguro suggests a chilling answer: no matter how scientifically evolved we may be, we are still uncivilised enough to be capable of cruel and calculated behaviour towards other sentient beings, whether human or animal.
But are Kathy and her friends sentient beings? The great poignancy of the novel lies in the way in which, despite their regulated environment which estranged them from all that is considered normal, these children attempt to create their own sense of family and love and worth. Despite a cold and hostile world that would prefer them to be invisible, these children awkwardly struggle with relationships in all their aspects, which would suggest that they are capable of feeling and thus, like “normals”, have souls.
Would a clone have a soul? If we clone human beings, will we get two beings who are both physically and psychologically identical? Or will we get robot-like creatures who, lacking a soul, are human in everything but their capacity to love and be loved; unable to create art as “proof” of the existence of their souls?
The episode of Ruth’s search for her “possible” is the most obvious exploration of this issue, as is Tommy’s struggle to be “artistic” and his blind fury when he is mocked for not trying hard enough.
But, in fact, it is through his characterisations throughout the novel that Ishiguro explores the question of whether clones will have souls. For me, there was always something slightly off-kilter; slightly false and forced about the emotions and reactions of the Hailsham students and their fellows. The “veterans” at the Cottages took their cue on how to act as a couple “in love” from TV shows. There were the endless discussions at Hailsham on the relationships between the seniors and how they should or shouldn’t act. Throughout Kathy’s narration there was the sense of a calculated, ruthlessly controlled something that dominated her existence, almost as if she knew how she should be feeling, but couldn’t quite feel it in reality.
Even at the inevitable, tragic ending there is this hint of robotic distance from any real emotion. “The fantasy never got beyond that – I didn’t let it – and though the tears rolled down my face, I wasn’t sobbing or out of control, I just walked a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be,” Kathy says.
But is this the reaction of an intelligent deeply emotional woman who, through environmental conditioning, has never really been allowed to get in touch with her deepest self, or is it the reaction of a woman who, while intellectually and rationally knowing how she should feel, can only act out emotions she does not, cannot, really feel?
This is but one example of the mastery Ishiguro displays in this novel. There are so many layers, and so many possible answers to the questions he raises, that “Never Let Me Go” is one of those stories that linger in the mind. This is a novel that has not yet let me go and probably won't, until the pages of my copy are shabby from constant reading and re-reading!