“… Memories, even your most precious ones, fade surprisingly quickly. But I don’t go along with that. The memories I value the most, I don’t ever see them fading”
says Kathy, the narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go. Staying true to her words, Kathy reconstructs her past in this evocative novel. As she rummages through the memories of her childhood spent at Hailsham – a special boarding school in England – we see the story of friendship, love and hope unfold. Kathy works as a ‘carer’ (someone who tends to the people who are going through the process of organ donation) in a medical facility. For her, the years spent at Hailsham are very important. It becomes very clear from her accounts that those years had shaped her beliefs, dreams and her ideas about future. At the age of 31, when she is narrating the story to the readers with her distinctive maturity, wisdom and calmness, she strikes us as someone who seems older than her age. Her recollections are primarily about two of her best friends, Tommy and Ruth. Tommy is a clumsy boy, isolated from rest of the students in the school. His poor skills at art – something the school is strangely obsessive about – makes him the object of scorn by his teachers (or guardians as they are called) and was often ridiculed by his schoolmates. Kathy is one of the few people at Hailsham who have a soft corner for him. She always tries to talk to him and help him. In the years of childhood, a very special bond begins to develop between them. When Tommy comes of his age, he gets into a relationship with Ruth. Not wishing to make things complicated, Kathy withdraws her own plans to confess her love to Tommy and helps her friend Ruth instead. Unlike Kathy, or for that matter Tommy, Ruth is very extrovert. They both look upon Kathy as someone who has the power to help them whenever their relationship go through rough patch. What makes this seemingly regular teenage story special is the world the entire characters are set in. For the most part of the novel, we are not given a full understanding of it, even though there are many inklings to it from the beginning. As soon as Kathy starts her narration, we understand that Hailsham is no ordinary school. Unusual traits of the ‘guardians’, myths about the school and the rumours about the unknown world beyond the sprawling school premises create almost a gothic atmosphere. We see Hailsham to be shrouded in a sort of dark secrecy. As the story continues, we understand that Hailsham is a place in a dystopian world and the children of that boarding school are, in fact clones, being raised for the purpose of donating organs. Once they step out of Hailsham they become ‘donors’, giving away their body bit by bit and eventually succumb to death (or ‘completion’ as it is known). These clones are designed not to possess the reproductive capabilities; and the lifespan of their kind is very short. The inescapable truths about their doomed future don’t quite answer all the questions about their lives. What is tragic about their life is they are aware of their future, though in a limited level of knowledge. Their upbringing at Hailsham has made them stay away from discussing certain topics in open. They see the injustice, which is forced upon them, as something very normal. They never seem to understand the enormity of death that is looming over them. Like animals raised in the farm, they live on until they reach ‘completion’. But what the rigorous conditioning fails to achieve is the complete suppression of human emotions in them. We see these youngsters go through emotional turmoil, heartaches and feel a sense of despair. What seems to be bothering them the most is not death but the inability to foster dreams for their future. The protagonists, who seem to have accepted their bleak future without any misgivings, start to rethink their position when they realize there is a possibility to defer their donation for few years. This knowledge, coupled with the confession of Ruth about how she thought she was an unfit partner for Tommy and how Kathy should have been his companion, starts a series of events that puts them on a journey to explore their life. Tommy and Kathy attempt to piece together every bit of the knowledge from their childhood – the training, the contacts and the myths – to see if they can buy time for themselves.
As unusual as it is, Never Let Me Go is a deeply moving story. Kathy narrates it without knowing that she is telling us one of the most brutal stories. She never actually talks about how cruelly the world has treated them. Instead, she focuses on her complicated relationship with Tommy. And how they dreamed together of a life that could have been better than the one that is thrust upon them. It is heartbreaking to see the protagonists hanging on to little myths from their childhood in the hope of obtaining the ‘deferral’. Ishiguro vividly narrates their life at Hailsham and afterward. We see them explore the ideas of identity, sexuality and life. We live their small moments of happiness. Check how Ishiguro draws a word picture of their fear. There was a story making rounds in Hailsham of a boy who once attempted to go out of the school campus and was later found dead with his limbs chopped. This gruesome story was used to forbid the pupils from even thinking of breaking away. The horrors of this myth was so severe that miscreants in the school are often made to stare at the woods outside the campus all night as a dreaded punishment. Like many of the myths that filled their childhood, there is one about a room in Hailsham. They call it Norfolk, after an actual place in England. Whenever somebody loses things, it eventually ends up in this room. Later when the protagonists come out of Hailsham, they continue to believe that all the beautiful things in their life that have been lost could be found in Norfolk. In the dreadful present, they hope that Norfolk reclaims for them what they truly deserved.
Ishiguro unveils the world of the students of Hailsham in an emotionally convincing way. He presents Kathy as a decidedly understated narrator; even while she talks about her bleak future. The subtlety of the description about her feelings towards Tommy speaks a lot about the childhood conditioning. It is heart-wrenching to see that the characters know nothing of their world. Their self-denial, as a result of their upbringing, stops them from even attempting. We keep thinking how such poor creatures can be complacent with their world. Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the finest storytellers of our time. Never Let Me Go was short-listed for The Man Booker Prize in 2005 and also for Arthur C Clarke Award for science fiction. This book features in the TIME magazine’s list of 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. There was also a critically acclaimed film made based on this novel. Never Let Me Go talks about the smugness of death and the crime called complacency. It reminds us how important it is to live every moment of our life to the fullest. Read this novel for its sheer brilliance.
[Trailer of the film based on this novel]