||A Review of: Never Let Me Go
by Michael Harris
The year was 1997 and the stage was England. Over three decades of
biotechnological research culminated in the birth of the world's
first clone, Dolly the sheep. Her test-tube creation spurred worrisome
speculations about "designer babies", "the gay
gene", and the possibility of human clones. But while the world
wrung its hands, Dolly stared at television cameras, chewed her
cud, and remained nonplussed.
Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel, Never Let Me Go, is set conspicuously
in "England, late 1990s" and spins a counter-factual
history wherein our collective anxiety comes forcefully to life in
the person of Kathy H.
Kathy is a good girl. Like Dolly, hers is a simple outlook on life,
confined to the Arcadian grounds of Hailsham. Hailsham is a boarding
school for clones that (don't tell Kathy!) doubles as an organ farm.
One day all the boys and girls there will "donate" their
vital bits, operation by operation, so that "real" people
(not clones) can live healthier, longer, lives. Hailsham stands
"in a smooth hollow with fields rising on all sides." And
its bubble of seclusion is completed by a long, narrow road, running
past a gate to the outside world and even some dark, scary woods
at the perimeter: "When it got bad, it was like they cast a
shadow over the whole of Hailsham." Hailsham students like to
use the word "special" to describe themselves. Perhaps a
more fitting moniker would be "free-run".
Lovers of Ishiguro's Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day
(1989) may balk. Science fiction usually ranks, along with fantasy
novels and mysteries, as the fast food of literature. Perhaps that
is why Ishiguro, with his penchant for genre-smashing, chose clones
to dissect humanity, rather than a more pedestrian subject.
Still, as science fiction goes, Kathy and her friends are heavy on
the pedestrian. They while away the majority of their days not-as
we might expect plotting an escape from the holocaust that is their
lives, but by squabbling over who shall be friends with whom and
who stole Kathy's favourite cassette tape.
The narrative centres on three Hailsham students-Kathy, Ruth and
Tommy-who enter into a love triangle when puberty's stranglehold
comes on. Kathy, being the good girl, holds back her feelings for
the angst-ridden-but-darkly-alluring Tommy, allowing Ruth to have
Considering Kathy's thwarted love and her fate as an involuntary
organ donor, she narrates the novel with cool dispassion. Her account
is unreliable as that of the ageing butler Stevens in The Remains
of the Day. The genius of the character Stevens was not his ability
to communicate, but precisely his stuffed-up inability to do so.
Indeed, novelist and critic David Lodge goes so far as to claim
that "Viewed objectively, [Stevens's] style has no literary
merit whatsoever. It is completely lacking in wit, sensuousness and
originality." Stevens, in other words, is a bore.
But Ishiguro himself is a master stylist, and this means that dull
narrators (like Stevens and Kathy) make, paradoxically, for fascinating
reads. The effectiveness of the unreliable narrator resides in
Kathy's inability to tell her own story. In Kathy's case, lapses
in memory aggravate the situation. "Or maybe I'm remembering
it wrong," she worries. Then, later: "This was all a long
time ago so I might have some of it wrong." And again: "we
couldn't at first agree when it had happened." Hazy memory
creates a detachment from all that came before. Kathy herself never
grows angry, for example, at her predicament, and is unable even
in adulthood to articulate the wrongs she has suffered.
Bland truth leaves no room for the flavour of intrigue, while
evasions, or misconceptions, are potent. The gaps in Kathy's memory
force an imaginative effort from the reader, so that we build the
story ourselves, by inference and between-the-lines deductions.
But angry, red-faced Tommy, who bursts into rages seemingly at
nothing, is the story's truthteller and has no patience for
between-the-lines twaddle. "Tommy thought it possible the
guardians had, throughout all our years at Hailsham, timed very
carefully and deliberately everything they told us, so that we were
always just too young to understand properly." Tommy feels
keenly the breach between artifice and reality that is his world.
He sees the sham of Hailsham. And Tommy longs to recapture what has
He helps the timid Kathy, for starters, to find her lost cassette-a
precious relic from childhood-though she is somehow blank when they
succeed: "To my own surprise, I kept silent at firstI thought
about pretending never to have seen it. And now it was there in
front of me, there was something vaguely embarrassing about the
tape, like it was something I should have grown out of." For
Kathy, whose future is a moot point, the past becomes both precious
and intangible. Hailsham students, being clones, do not live human
lives with personal histories; they live shelf lives, with nothing
more than expiry dates.
Every dystopian novel has its Winston Smith, and Never Let Me Go
has Tommy. Not content with recapturing mementoes from childhood,
Tommy digs at the roots of the cloning industry, to answer those
humanity-defining questions: Where did I come from? Who am I?
And what is a clone? Where does humanity abide? Should a facsimile
be afforded the same rights and freedoms as an original? Ishiguro's
moral conundrum is not a new one. In fact, all the elemental problems
that cloning called up in the late 90s were hashed out decades
earlier (on a lesser scale) in art galleries. Cloning is the problem
of photography made flesh.
Susan Sontag, perhaps our most erudite commentator on the problem
of photography, states that "photographs cannot create a moral
position, but they can reinforce one." It is the journalistic
quality of pictures, their "this happened" sureness, that
Sontag invokes when she calls them reinforcers of a moral position.
Christopher Isherwood famously stated "I am a camera" to
claim objective distance from morally suspect subject matter. And
Ishiguro's clone-narrator Kathy would likely do the same. She is a
print, a documentary. She does not judge or holler in outrage. In
Never Let Me Go, all of Ishiguro's clone characters remind us of
moral quandaries but are unable, somehow, to fight back, to
"create a moral position" of their own.
That said, Kathy and red-faced Tommy do attempt at least to solve
the technical mystery of their existence. And Ishiguro then has
them resemble the crime-solving teens of TV's Scooby Doo more than
characters drawn up by a serious novelist. There's even a ridiculously
long monologue near the end wherein a mastermind explains away all
the mysteries the book had marinated in. The reader half expects a
criminal to bleat "and I would've gotten away with it, too,
if it hadn't been for you meddlin' kids!" It is an unsubtle
ending to a very subtle book.
In Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro's protagonists are partially an
embodiment of the moral crisis around cloning and only partially
fleshed out humans. Yet this very convention-this dehumanizing of
the science fiction hero-plays into Ishiguro's trap. As in all his
novels, here we are abandoned in a strange world, a strange mind,
and must hack our way back to ourselves.