Kathy H., the novel’s protagonist, reflects back upon growing-up with her friends Tommy and Ruth at a mysterious place in the English countryside called Hailsham. Their lives are steeped in unanswered questions and confusion. They have a sense that the ‘guardians’ keep things from them. Still, having known no other life, the children cannot begin to imagine what secrets are being hidden. It is only as adults they find out the truth.
Hailsham is the only home the students have ever known. Kathy describes an atmosphere of questioning, secrecy and lack of emotion. No mention of how the children arrived at Hailsham or who their parents are is ever made. It is clear that they are ‘special’ and the ‘guardians’ are parent-like figures. However, ‘guardians’ don’t show affection and do not show favoritism. The children meet secretly to converse about things they don’t understand.
Art Exhibitions are one of the most controversial and enigmatic of Hailsham’s mysteries. The children are expected to produce art for Madame, who, in turn, comes 3 to 4 times per year to collect the best pieces for ‘the Gallery.’ ‘How you were regarded at Hailsham, how much you were liked and respected, had to do with how good you were at “creating.”’ The children have a sense for things. They know this must be important, but why?
As with younger children, for a while no thought is given as to why things occur the way they do at Hailsham. There comes a turning point in the minds of Kathy and Tommy when they begin to wonder the purpose of their work. Tommy is especially sensitive about the subject because he is a great athlete, but is laughed at for his lack of artistic ability. What does it mean that he doesn’t have any work in ‘the Gallery?’ While Tommy shares his concerns with Kathy, he is becoming physically close to Ruth.
When the Hailsham kids grow a bit older, the answer to some of their most longed-after questions is finally given. One day in class, as a student discusses his dreams of becoming an actor, the ‘guardian,’ Miss Lucy, stops him abruptly. She tells them not to imagine they can be like people they see in films. ‘Your lives are set out for you. You’ll become adults, and then before you’re old, you’ll start to donate your vital organs.’ Among the students, there had been little reaction to the news. Was this due to the unemotional lifestyle they had been brought up in? A lack of familial ties? Or had their being raised in an enclosed environment limited their ability to envision a life outside of confinement? Kathy ruminated that they had always known in a way.
Among the chaos of attempting to discover answers- Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy explore their personal relationships. Kathy and Ruth are best girlfriends. Ruth and Tommy are physically attracted to each other. Through it all, Kathy and Tommy have a deep emotional bond. All three are aware of these things, but continue for years as though Kathy and Tommy have no feelings for each other. Perhaps in any other situation, the girls would have ceased being friends, and Tommy would have found another girl. There was no one else. After graduating from Hailsham, the three were sent to lives at an old farm called the Cottages for two years before becoming donors.
The stress and fear about making donations combined with jealousy and resentment builds up to do unalterable damage to the relations of the young friends. Ruth and Tommy have always been together for the physicality of their relationship. Of course, this is Kathy’s opinion. All Kathy knows is that while Tommy sleeps with Ruth, he comes to her to talk. On a trip to a coastal town, veterans of the Cottage, confide in the three of them that if two donors can prove they are truly in love, they may be given a 3-4 year deferral from donating.
One day, Tommy shows Kathy that he has been working on art for ‘the Gallery.’ He believes ‘the Gallery’ is the way people are given deferrals. Soon after, she stumbles upon Tommy and Ruth arguing about the paintings. Ruth now knows that Tommy showed Kathy first. Kathy only knows that she doesn’t want one of them to walk away and be left with the other. She loves them both. There are indications that Ruth is only staying with Tommy to keep him away from Kathy. ‘Well Kathy, what you have to realize is Tommy doesn’t see you like that.’ Ruth knows Tommy and Kathy want to be together, so she tries to pull them apart.
Instead of staying at the Cottage in agony, Kathy signs on to care for donors and leaves. In retrospect, she realizes that it wasn’t all Ruth’s fault. She had provoked the argument by picking on Ruth. If Kathy really thought Ruth was as cruel and selfish as she seemed to at the Cottage, perhaps she might have considered betraying their friendship for Tommy.
It isn’t until years later when Ruth is dying that Kathy sees her again. Kathy agrees with Ruth’s wish to pick up Tommy from another center where he is currently donating to go for a drive. At this point both Ruth and Tommy are near completion (death). Kathy is still a carer, a person who makes donors feel comfortable until completion. Near the point of death, none of the past matters, but Ruth finally admits she was wrong. ‘I don’t really expect you to forgive me ever. I don’t really see why you should. But I’m going to ask you all the same.’ As a token she is genuine in her apology, Ruth hands over the address of Madame-she wants Tommy and Kathy to try for a deferral.
When Kathy and Tommy visit the Madame, they are told there were never any deferrals. In a time when clones were housed in brutal conditions, the women of Hailsham attempted to give them a better life. Previously, Hailsham clones were only for scientific purposes. They are very lucky to have been cultured and educated. Tommy wants to know the purpose of ‘the Gallery.’ ‘We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls.’ The outside world wanted to pretend the students were less than human to justify taking their organs and lives.
The ‘guardians’ thought they were doing the right thing for the students at Hailsham. In much the same way as human’s fight for the rights of animals in scientific testing; the clones were given an education, better living conditions, a childhood. But why encourage critical thinking and teach people about the rest of the world only to deny them the possibilities of a real life? Is it crueler to raise a person in poor conditions having never known anything else, or to give them something good and then take it away?
The world of Never Let Me Go is a U.K. of the future. It novel depicts a dystopian society. It is reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World a in that government control impedes life, causes fear, confusion, forces submission. In this case the government is in control of people’s physical bodies. The clones in the novel live an isolated existence, completely controlled by higher power, one they know nothing about. The ‘normal’ people live in a society where people (clones) must die in order for them to live and sustain their current lifestyle. In arguing that donors have no souls, the government creates a society complacent with murder.
Little is mentioned about the government. Many questions regarding the specifics of cloning, the fate of the clones, or the society in which they live go unanswered. This may be due to the fact that Ishiguro intended for the novel to remain vague in these subject areas. The reader is left to imagine only the most terrible futuristic world order. One which would allow such a thing to occur. In this way, it may become a much more grotesque an evil a place than could be written.
The real heart of the story looks into the paths the characters choose with limited options and time they are given. One observation I found very profound about the characters is that they never once try to escape their fate. No one can tell by looking at them that they’re different. Kathy is given a car as a carer. Yet they don’t consider they have a chance to do something else. The erriness of Kathy’s constant references to them always knowing what they should do make a reader wonder what exactly she means. Are they truly different? It seems as though it is human nature to do anything to survive, so why give up so easily?
This novel could be a read a zillion times and there would still be hypotheticals and discussion questions to find. It covers a variety of topics nature vs. nurture, government, medical ethics, the future, friendship, love, fate, among them. In this assortment of themes it is impeccably organized and written. Even as a person not usually fond of the science fiction genre, I really liked it.
Final Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
For more information:
about the author: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kazuo_Ishiguro
Ishiguro interview for Never Let Me Go: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2005/feb/19/fiction.kazuoishiguro