Note: This review contains spoilers.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go takes place in a parallel universe after the Second World War, where human cloning is predominant in medical science. Written in the first person perspective, the novel is woven from the memories of the protagonist, Kathy H., and touches upon the lives of many others, particularly those of her two best friends, Ruth and Tommy. A good portion of the book gives us insight into Kathy’s life at a special boarding school called Hailsham, and the constantly evolving romantic-triangle-esque relationship between the three friends. As its speculative undertones become more apparent, the novel makes us question what it is to be human in a scientifically advanced world.
I cannot imagine the novel being written in any perspective other than Kathy’s, especially because her tone of voice suits the novel so perfectly. The first section of the novel, “Childhood,” contrasts drastically with the second and third sections, “The Cottages” and “Donor,” respectively. As a child, Kathy is free-spirited, passionate, and stands up for what she believes in. However, as she ages, this gradually fades and is replaced with a cool and collected perspective that seems to be almost emotionless. The fade of passion marks her lost innocence, which makes sense because as she matures, she comes to understand and accept what it means for her purpose in life to be an organ donor to ‘real’ people.
At the end of the novel Kathy placidly describes her best friends going to “completion”—which is to say, dying—is frightening and creates an emotional divide between her and the readers. Her resignation to her fate makes it hard for us to empathize with her, and this is probably the best comparison to the stigma against human clones Ishiguro provides for us. We view things that appear to be emotionless or too different from us as ‘soulless,’ and put up a barrier that separates ‘us’ from ‘them’. Thus when some people reason that clones must not have souls, they believe that it is morally acceptable to use clones as needed, similar to how they treat animals.
The science fiction aspect of the novel is underplayed. Whether this is because Ishiguro wanted to make it more accessible to increase readership is debatable. But the novel definitely could have explained more about the whole process of cloning and organ distribution, as many of the logistical details were left out. One of my questions was how did they keep track of all of the clones? Was there some sort of intricate system of tracking devices? And even if there was, why did no one ever try to escape it? I understand that Ishiguro wanted to emphasize the hopelessness of existence in the novel, but by creating a world where the clones do not even consider the idea of escaping the system, Ishiguro is just reinforcing the idea that they are clones, and just clones.
During their adolescence , Kathy and Tommy did have several discussions concerning the hushed system of Hailsham, but their questioning natures diminish as they reach adulthood. This is probably because they realize that they have no other option—but in the readers’ perspective, they were the best candidates to oppose the inhumane system of their world. The fact that they did not oppose, and furthermore, could not survive the system, completely extinguishes whatever hopes the readers held on to.
It is true that all of them were led into believing that their purpose in life was to donate their organs and care for other clones. However, isn’t innovative thinking one of the greatest assets of the human mind? I feel like there were many loopholes in the system that the characters could have taken advantage of (for example, who, if anyone, would punish them for trying to escape, and how would they be punished?). Their failure to actually rebel is such a shame.
The scientific backdrop of the novel is interesting and enticing for science fiction lovers, but by the end of the novel it becomes apparent that Ishiguro mainly incorporates this setting in order to emphasize the hopeless tone of the novel. The fact that the main characters are clones and are forced to donate their organs until they “completed” leaves them wondering how long they can live their lives as ordinary people. Ishiguro masters the structure of the novel by juxtaposing this lengthened time of bliss to the short period of time they are monitored and live as “carers” and “donors.” The abrupt ending to each carefully-described life highlights the cruelty of the world in Never let Me Go.
I usually expect speculative pieces to immerse me in a new, fantastical world, yet I actually found this novel too normal. Ishiguro’s writing style is very simple, and no sentence was particularly profound or grabbed my attention for a re-read. However, Ishiguro resolved the novel with a sense of closure, and the ending scene was an excellent moment in the novel. Overall, the character development and the storytelling were incredible. Ishiguro has a way of weaving words and storylines in the most careful and intricate way so that the reader is gently pulled along until the end (just like the clones).
-contributed by Ariana Youm