Review: Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

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I am surprised that so few people have read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, as (although it is deeply disturbing) it is genetically perfect.

Written in 2010, the story follows the tribulations of an adolescent love triangle, as Ruth and Kathy vie for the affections of the mildly rebellious Tommy. Set in a crypto-public school called Hailsham, issues of romantic attention and ownership surround the students’ relationships and dominate the book.

But the pedestrian dialogue and rites-of-passage narrative hide a darkly skewed world: all the students are clones, living laboratories for organs that will be harvested as soon as the students reach maturity. Once grown, the students become ‘carers’ for other clones who are trying to recover from ‘donating’ up to four organs until they run out of body parts and ‘complete.’

The traditional school setting in the countryside, with caring teachers and a curriculum centred on art and the humanities, seem darkly out of place in a world where 25 is the longest lifespan for a living organ factory. Yet, it seems that the school’s Headmistress and founders use artistic talent to prove that the clones have a soul and a capacity for love; a love that the three students falsely believe can be used to extend their life if it can be proved beyond doubt to a never-glimpsed authority. But in this Kafka-esque world, art and literature cannot save a life. Ruth and Tommy quickly mature to become ‘completed’ donors, while Kathy ends up with her two friends dead, anticipating her first organ removal.

The wonder of this novel is how the scientific horror is increasingly present, yet vague and held in bland allusion and euphemism. The language is one of distraction, recalling history’s ‘final solution,’ ‘ethnic cleansing’, or whichever version of veiled vocabulary is being employed today. This novel has much to say, yet quite what is being said is often not always clear. Certainly it wishes to discuss morality, scientific ethics and the role of the humanities in life and education. But is the book’s take on our suffering and physical decay the real message?

Despite its concern with replicants, the tone and narrative are a world away from Blade Runner, where the clones might mount a rebellion and become fabricated terrorists on the edge. Instead, Ruth, Kathy and Tommy conform: they complete their allotted span, suffer hideously and exit the text as quietly and politely as they arrived.

This is the chilling aspect of the novel. There are few more human traits than conformity and this text nags at you to ask yourself if 25 years is any less significant a time span than our allotted three score years and ten?

There is twisted humour too. One of my favourite scenes is when Kathy leaves Hailsham, headed for an incontrovertible agonising death, and agrees to study the Victorian novel as a post-educational project. Whatever is being said about the Victorian novel and its contemporary relevance is delightfully scathing.

Never Let Me Go is a dark and human novel that doesn’t fit into the science-fiction or horror genre any more than it does the teenage romance. It wobbles on a high-wire between them all and reminds you of the reality howling underneath. Therein lies its uncomfortable charm.

Photograph by Gabrielle Ludlow, via Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Laurence Cotterell

Middle-aged English teacher who loves books, playing amateur football and passing Half Man Half Biscuit lyrics off as my own. Originally from Barnet, I now reside in Stroud with my artist wife, Sarah and a troika of freeloading cats.

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