Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Grip of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

I’ll be absolutely transparent: I loved Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. With its existentialist themes, clear characters, convincing narrative voice, and moral questions, this is my kind of fiction. The additions of an eerie parallel world – you could consider it dystopian, I guess – and a human view of biomedical ethics put it way over the top.

Never Let Me Go is a novel on a very long, very slow fuse. Yes, Ishiguro mentions something cryptic about carers and donors at the start, but the first 75-100 pages of this first-person narrative feel most remarkable for feeling fairly unremarkable. A woman, Kathy, reminisces about life and friends from boarding school, often focusing on small incidents that affected their relationships. The students sound sheltered, and some of the rules at the school seem a little odd.

When I look back, what felt most remarkable to me at the start is that so much chat about not so much held my interest. I already knew the book’s secret, which I will mention below, after a warning, but Ishiguro gave me just enough to hang on to that I didn’t consider skipping or skimming to get to the good part. Beyond creating a credible, colloquial female voice that I never doubted, he adeptly works in objects and themes – a cassette related to the title, child art – that become more and more important toward the end of the book but don’t seem contrived.

Warning: I will now discuss specifics of the book. Part of what I admire so much about Never Let Me Go is that it made me feel very uncomfortable. Ishiguro presents an England in which cloned children are created and raised to serve as donors who provide body parts to “normals” until they, the donors, “complete.”

The premise behind the cloning is, of course, repugnant, and the guardians at Kathy’s school hide much of the truth from the children. They fear the children but also collect the children’s art to prove they have souls. During their years between school and their forced careers – first as carers for donors, then as donors – some of the students look for “possibles,” their originals, to try to learn about their identities.

They also wonder about ways out. Though they seem passive and have been raised to believe they are special and doing something good, they perpetuate rumors that deferrals from donorship are possible if they are in love. Kathy and Tommy, a student who has been intuitively angry all his life about his future and has already made multiple donations, take their request for a deferral to Madame, the former head of their school, Hailsham. The rumors aren’t true.

Kathy and Tommy’s discussion with Madame and one of their former teachers is beyond sad. Madame calls them “poor creatures,” adding “I wish I could help you. But now you’re by yourselves.” Another former guardian says she dreaded the children every day. The behavior of Kathy and Tommy is far more human, more soulful, than that of the “normal” guardians, who avoided the truth and were part of a system that perpetuates using their former students for body parts, to put off the completions of normals.

Ishiguro returns again and again to loss in Never Let Me Go, mentioning lost physical objects and lost lives. Perhaps the biggest losses for Kathy, Tommy, and their friend Ruth, though, are the underpinnings of what make us human: free will, the mystery of death, and the illusion of mortality that comes with youth and love. Denying the deferrals – a reprieve to simply live – felt especially cruel. That cruelty is one reason why Never Let Me Go still won’t let me go, even though I finished it several weeks ago. Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth aren’t so different from us normals – we also want love, deferrals, and illusions of immortality to enliven us before we complete.

Beyond that, I used to write about biotechnology, including techniques involving cloning. About nine summers ago, I heard Michael West, then president of Advanced Cell Technology, speak about human cloning, including reproductive cloning. The setting was a dinner at a biotech conference, and the tables were decorated with candles and shells. Most of the electric lights were off, and the room flickered and glowed. West spoke about Osiris, letters he’d received from distraught people whose loved ones had died, and extending life. It probably doesn’t sound like much here, but everything about that talk felt so otherworldly – somewhere between séance and science – that I still shiver when I think about it, even now, on another warm night. Never Let Me Go is at least as eerie, but it is literature that is beautifully conceived, and it is achingly timeless and timely.

Never Let Me Go contains simple language that would make it a great choice for nonnative readers of English.

For more:

Sarah Kerr’s review for The New York Times Book Review

Michiko Kakutani’s review for The New York Times

Up next: Alina Bronsky’s Broken Glass Park, Maile Chapman’s Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto, and Saša Stanišić’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone.

Photo credit: "Old tape" from tulp, via sxc.hu.


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