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Ishiguro’s novel raises troubling questions for modern humanity

“And so we stood together like that, at the top of that field for what seemed ages, not saying anything, just holding each other, while the wind kept blowing and blowing at us, tugging our clothes, and for a moment it seemed like we were holding onto each other because that was the only way to stop us from being swept away into the night.”

— Never Let Me Go, page 274

Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel has the deceptive innocence and charm of a Venus flytrap.

It is quite possible for an unsuspecting reader to be lured into the fanciful environs of Hailsham (a private school nestled in the English countryside) fully expecting to encounter something akin to Harry Potter’s alma mater, Hogwarts. Indeed, there is a platoon of winsome juveniles, and a staff of eccentric and intimidating “guardians” who make occasional, mysterious references to the institution’s mission: to prepare their youthful charges for a “special service to mankind.”

However, the specific details about the “service” that Hailsham’s graduates will be called upon to perform remain a mystery. Faculty members (guardians) are either evasive or cryptic when questioned by their students about “life after Hailsham.” Oddly, as the years pass, many of the students discover that they “know without knowing” what the future holds for them. The majority will be “donors” while others will be “carers” (who will eventually become “donors,” too). Under the careful guidance of their supervisors, the students come to anticipate their “graduation” with a mix of pride and anxiety. Occasionally, some of their guardians, like Sister Lucy, make comments that suggest that all is not well in Hailsham, or the rest of the world for that matter.

Ishiguro focuses on three students: Kathy, Tommy and Ruth. (The fact that they do not have surnames is especially significant.) As these three friends mature, bicker, share secrets and develop strong attachments, the horror of their predicament gradually emerges. Hailsham is but one of numerous “colonies” throughout England where clones are being raised for body parts. Medical science has developed a system of efficient maintenance, which prolongs a donor’s life. However, most donors “complete” (a Hailsham euphemism for dying) after their third or fourth donation.

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Possibly the greatest literary merit in Never Let Me Go is the masterful use of understatement. Instead of shocking us with the descriptive details of “harvesting body parts” from a clone colony, the author allows Kathy to tell her own story. The childlike innocence of Kathy’s narrative never lapses into horror or outrage, even as she moves inevitably toward her own death. Instead, we read a young woman’s diary as Kathy describes her growing affection for Tommy, who behaves like a confused and angry teenager and Kathy watches Ruth successfully compete for Tommy’s affection. The reader is constantly aware of the contrast between such juvenile innocence and what reality has in store for these children.

Also, Never Let Me Go functions as a modern parable. As Kathy, Ruth and Tommy become increasingly aware of their predicament, they begin to notice the reactions of some of their guardians to their presence. Some of Hailsham’s staff view them with poorly concealed repugnance. Even their benefactors, such as the intimidating guardian known only as “Madam” — who encourages creativity and “collects” their best creations for her “gallery” — regards them as biological freaks and seems to shudder when approached by them. Eventually, Kathy learns that there are doubts regarding their basic nature: Do they have souls? Since they are incapable of bearing children, can they experience “real” love?

The most memorable passages in this novel concern the inexplicable spread of a kind of folklore among the doomed students. One concerns the belief that couples are sometimes given a “temporary reprieve” based on their exceptional creative talents (as demonstrated by their works in the “gallery”) and their demonstrated love for each other. The selected couples are allowed to live together in a remote area for a period of three years, whereupon they return to their donor status. Despite Hailsham’s efforts to eradicate the belief, it persists. There is also an almost mystical obsession with a derelict boat that is half-buried in a marsh near the ocean. Students often make secret pilgrimages to the location, motivated by a vague and unacknowledged hope of escape.

Then, there is Ruth’s poignant search for her “possible” — a human being who provided the DNA that produced Ruth. The only evidence to substantiate such a belief would be a physical resemblance. Although no student has ever succeeded in finding a “possible,” Ruth and her two friends spend a lot of time looking at faces in magazines and on the streets of nearby villages. After a particularly frustrating episode in which Ruth follows a woman who clerks in a store in a nearby resort town, she finally comes to feel that she will never find her “possible.” Besides, she tells her friends, the clerk that they had stalked is “too respectable.” Ruth bitterly concludes, “We are modeled from trash. Junkies, prostitutes, winos and tramps.” Yet, all of the Hailsham clones continue to yearn for a tenuous connection or some form of acceptance into the world of humans. It is a desire that will never be acknowledged.

This provocative novel appears at an auspicious time. Even as we read this haunting, bittersweet tale of a generation of clones who are reviled, rejected and legally “used,” we are standing on the threshold of a “cloning age” that may demonstrate our humanity – or our lack of it.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. $24 — 288 pages.

(Gary Carden is a writer, storyteller and lecturer whose book, Mason Jars in the Flood, was recently named Book of the Year by the Appalachian Writers Association. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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