Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go follows the story of Kathy H, as she reflects on her life at the age of thirty-one. You enter her story as a young girl growing up in a mysterious boarding school in a skewed version of contemporary England, called Hailsham. Everything on the surface seems rather idyllic, however as she reflects on her time there, she starts to dissect the odd nature of the school. Hailsham students aren’t allowed to have children and don’t know their parents, but what they do know is that they’re special.

They’re different from everyone else, including their guardians, which is what their teachers are referred to as. The students are indoctrinated blindly in the belief that their personal worth and meaning resides entirely in their ability to create art. During their time at Hailsham they paint and write poetry, participating in ‘Exchanges’ with other students and the best art is selected for ‘the Gallery’, by a mysterious woman known as Madame. Kathy reflects on her time there with a warm nostalgia as she reminisces on stories of her youth with her two friends Tommy and Ruth.

Kathy reflects on an isolated incident where one of the guardians, Miss Lucy, tells the students that they are clones who were created to donate organs. The students passively accept their fate as if it was something they always knew despite never being explicitly told and Miss Lucy is dismissed shortly after this incident. 

When Kathy, Ruth and Tommy grow into adolescence they become part of a shifting love triangle, however Ruth and Tommy stay in a relationship as they move onto a place called the Cottages when they turn sixteen. It is the first time they’re allowed into the outside world and associate with other clones from different institutions. The other clones at the Cottages acknowledge the Hailsham students as special because of a rumour circulating: that a couple can have their donations deferred if they can prove that they are truly in love.

Tommy becomes captivated by this rumour sharing a theory that the reason Madame collected their art was to determine which couples were truly in love. However, as the relationship between the three friends deteriorates Kathy applies to become a carer, leaving the Cottages in the process.

After a decade Kathy becomes Ruth’s carer as her first donation goes badly and her health worsens. She expresses regret for keeping Tommy and Kathy apart and urges them to seek a deferral. Kathy becomes Tommy’s carer and they go to Madame’s house where they meet the former headmistress, Miss Emily. They reveal that the education they were given at Hailsham was much more humane than other institutions and the Gallery was a place to try and show the outside world that clones had souls. It is also revealed that the deferrals never existed and the experiment failed which is the reason for Hailsham’s closure.

‘We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls...or to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all.’

The novel explores many themes and could be argued to be quite dystopian in the way it approaches them. Kathy and her friends are constantly looking for a sense of identity. As they learn about their purpose, they constantly question who they are and what they are, given their place in this detached part of society. A lot of students model themselves from what they see on films or adverts and practice role-playing jobs, living in a constant imitation of the real world. I guess this comes back to the fact that they are clones themselves and are viewed as being shadows of society. Most prominently, the idea of identity is seen in the assessment of whether the clones have souls, which defines their identity crisis. We are reminded about the fear the guardians and outside world have towards the clones which only serves to cause them more confusion.

It also enters into the discussion of AI and the way the clones are humanised in such a way where the distinction between human and non-human is finding ways to identify the presence of a soul, which as seen in the book is rather complicated. The false notion of love allowing them to defer their donations demonstrates the struggle the students have with coming to terms with themselves. Hailsham is all they know and Kathy’s fond memories of the place serve to show that it’s the only place she’s ever felt a sense of belonging.

‘All the students who’d grown up with me were now spread across the country, carers and donors, all separated now but still somehow linked by the place we’d come from’

It also explores a range of other themes such as nostalgia and mortality, among other things. It’s such an expansive book and makes you question your own fundamental reality and worldview.

Overall I really enjoyed the story, it was the first time in a while where I couldn’t put a book down. It was captivating and intriguing, albeit quite depressing. The introspective, nostalgic narrative style causes you to constantly try and work out what things mean and connect the dots from the subtle hints that are slowly revealed. The fragility exposed throughout the novel gives it a cold feel, as if there’s a disconnect between you and the characters that you’ll never bridge. I felt that, despite knowing the intimate details of Kathy’s life, I always felt distant from her. This bears a resemblance to the separation between you and your memories, a distance that can never be fully travelled again, no matter how hard you try. 

The way in which the story is told feels similar to the way Kathy and her friends find out about their true purpose. You work it out in a similar way whereby each revelation becomes less shocking because you felt like you already knew this was the case, you just weren’t quite sure. It parallels the way the students felt like they always had a sense of their purpose; they just never explicitly acknowledged it or had a sense of denial because the reality was too tragic.

Although I enjoyed it, it did feel very bleak at times but it also opens up many questions concerning a range of themes. It was presented in an entertaining, thought-provoking way and I loved the intimacy of the narrative style. There’s so many little details which I couldn’t fit in this review so I’d highly recommend you have a read.