[I]t doesn't really matter how well your guardians try to prepare you: all the talks, videos, discussions, warnings, none of that can really bring it home. Not when you're eight years old, and you're all together in a place like Hailsham; when you've got guardians like the ones we had; when the gardeners and the delivery men joke and laugh with you and call you "sweetheart".
All the same, some of it must go in somewhere. It must go in, because by the time a moment like that comes along, there's a part of you that's been waiting. Maybe from as early as when you’re five or six, there’s been a whisper going at the back of your head, saying: "One day, maybe not so long from now, you'll get to know how it feels." So you're waiting, even if you don't quite know it, waiting for the moment when you realise that you really are different to them; that there are people out there, like Madame, who don't hate you or wish you any harm, but who nevertheless shudder at the very thought of you - of how you were brought into this world and why - and who dread the idea of your hand brushing against theirs. The first time you glimpse yourself through the eyes of a person like that, it's a cold moment. It's like walking past a mirror you've walked past every day of your life, and suddenly it shows you something else, something troubling and strange.
The reputation of Never Let Me Go (2005) as an emotionally gruelling read - albeit in a beautifully-written, characteristically restrained Kazuo Ishiguro way - is a well-deserved one. The novel has been discussed widely in the years since its publication, notably by Vicky of this parish, way back in the days of the Emerald City webzine. Against all this weight of opinion, I don't have anything particularly insightful to add, so I don't intend to write about it at great length here. But I like to use this blog to record and remember my responses to books, as well as for more detailed reviewing, and since my condition after reading Never Let Me Go wasn't as straightforwardly heart-rent as I expected, I think a few notes will help me work through my thoughts. (There will be spoilers.)
So. Never Let Me Go evokes an England of country lanes and prefab buildings and fog, of boarding schools languishing on leafy estates and plastic-tablecloth cafes in grey seaside towns. We're told that it's the late 1990s when our narrator, 31-year-old Kathy H., begins to tell us her story; but the childhood she recalls at Hailsham school, and the young adulthood spent working as a "carer", are harder to place in time. Aside from the occasional technological marker (like the cassette tape of the fictional pop song that gives the novel its title), the events Kathy relates feel like they could be taking place more or less anywhere between the 1950s and the mid-80s.
This indeterminancy is a more general feature of Kathy's narration. She tells her wrenchingly sad tale with an elliptical, even clinical distance, letting reader inference and guesswork fill in not only much of the detail of what exactly is going on in this mildly-science fictional version of England, but also much of the emotion. We slowly learn that her role as a carer essentially involves visiting young people in hospital, to keep them calm as their organs are removed one by one. These young people's entire reason for being is - like her own - to provide a living, breathing home for healthy organs and tissue, until such time as those organs are needed by someone else. She sits with them in their agony and knows that their fate will soon be her own, and while she briefly acknowledges that "it wears you down", she spends her time briskly describing the shiny, shiny tiles in the hospital, and says, with an almost audible shrug of resignation, things like:
The centre Ruth was in that time, it's one of my favourites, and I wouldn't mind at all if that's where I ended up.
If you're expecting Kathy to be shaking her fists at the sky and railing against the horrific injustice of the system, you've come to the wrong novel. Her detachment wavers only slightly when she begins to describe her childhood, and even then it is tinged with fondness rather than outrage. She talks almost warmly of the pupils' giggly intrigues and the various teachers (or 'guardians', who are all known by faux-friendly titles like "Miss Emily" and "Miss Lucy" and "Miss Geraldine"), and edges around more difficult subjects. At times the effort to keep the narrative allusive, to maintain the mystery, can be rather artless: after the fifteenth or so capitalised anvil is dropped into the narration oh-so-casually without explanation - the Gallery, the Sale, Madame, and (towards the end) the Mornington Scandal - I found myself muttering suitably ominous musical cues ("dun-dun-DUH!!") as I read.
Yes, for all the chummy-plummy boarding-school language (an argument is a "furious row", kids have a "special favourite" teacher, dramas happen in the sports pavilion), it becomes apparent very quickly that something at Hailsham is not quite right. Every so often, the facade cracks, just a little, and the ugly truth peeks out:
Then she paused and went quiet. Someone said later she'd gone off into a daydream, but I was pretty sure, as was Ruth, that she was thinking hard about what to say next. Finally she said:
"You've been told about it. You're students. You're… special. So keeping yourselves well, keeping yourselves very healthy inside, that's much more important for each of you than it is for me."
She stopped again and looked at us in a strange way. Afterwards, when we discussed it, some of us were sure she was dying for someone to ask: "Why? Why is it so much worse for us?" But no one did.
But the nature of Hailsham's not-rightness is only gradually (and never fully) revealed. We can gather that Kathy and her fellow pupils are clones of some sort, bred and raised to be organ donors, although it's never really clear how or why the system works, because this isn't really what interests Ishiguro: whether they're genetically engineered to be universal donors, whether they're clones of specific (presumably wealthy people) who just happen to always have multiple organ failures in a very short space of time, or whatever. The kids know enough to believe that there are "models" or "originals" of themselves out there in the world somewhere, but we never meet them in the text and it's difficult to be sure that this isn't simply another of the many myths that find such fertile ground at Hailsham.
Like any schoolchildren - and perhaps more so, since they are told so little - the pupils of Hailsham fervently believe all manner of stories that they've invented amongst themselves: that the edge of the woodland marking the borders of the school grounds is terribly, terribly dangerous (shades of the film The Village), for example, or that certain pieces the artwork they're all encouraged to produce on a regular basis get taken away because they've been selected for display in a Gallery, somewhere:
The gallery Tommy and I were discussing was something we'd all of us grown up with. Everyone talked about it as though it existed, though in truth none of us knew for sure that it did. I'm sure I was pretty typical in not being able to remember how or when I'd first heard about it. Certainly, it hadn't been from the guardians: they never mentioned the Gallery, and there was an unspoken rule that we should never even raise the subject in their presence.
Indeed, it's difficult to be sure about the reliability of so much of what Kathy tells us. There are things she doesn't remember (on a key speech by one teacher: "Beyond that though, things became a fog"); things that she believes she remembers but on which other characters disagree with her when she talks to them; things that she's aware her sense of narrative and foreshadowing make her exaggerate in retrospect ("if these incidents now seem full of significance and all of a piece, it’s probably because I'm looking at them in the light of what came later"); and things that she admits to knowing were not true, but which she played along with anyway, such as when her friend Ruth pretends she has been given a gift by one of the teachers:
There's no question Ruth was keen to keep the whole thing going. But the truth was, those of us who'd grown close to her, we each played our part in preserving the fantasy and making it last for as long as possible.
This sense of consensus (un)reality, of comforting lies and/or willed ignorance, is a recurring motif. It is signalled early on, when one of Kathy's clients - a boy who had a different, much less sheltered childhood before becoming a donor than did Kathy - begs her to tell him about Hailsham:
He'd ask me about the big things and the little things. About our guardians, about how we each had our own collection chests under our beds, the football, the rounders, the little path that took you all round the outside of the main house, round all its nooks and crannies, the duck pond, the food, the view from the Art Room over the fields on a foggy morning. [...] At first I thought this was just the drugs, but then I realised his mind was clear enough. What he wanted was not just to hear about Hailsham, but to remember Hailsham, just like it had been his own childhood. He knew he was close to completing and so that’s what he was doing: getting me to describe things to him, so they'd really sink in, so that maybe during those sleepless nights, with the drugs and the pain and the exhaustion, the line would blur between what were my memories and what were his. That was when I first understood, really understood, just how lucky we'd been - Tommy, Ruth, me, all the rest of us.
Hailsham itself, of course, is just such a consensus unreality, and the novel is about the process of Kathy waking up from that unreality. She chooses to believe that she and her friends were lucky in their experience, being sheltered from the truth for so long and allowed to have at least a semblance of normal childhoods, even after she knows it was all a lie. But for me the cruellest reveal is not the discovery that yet another fervently-held myth - the idea that it is possible for people like Kathy and Tommy to get a stay of a execution, a "deferral", if they can demonstrate to some ill-defined authority that they are in love - is utterly without foundation, and that Kathy is going to have to watch Tommy die before beginning her own donations. That said, the impact of this dashed hope was distinctly dulled, for me, by the fact that it happened in the midst of a very long and inelegant climactic exposition scene - one of the few really ill-judged pieces of writing in the novel, but unfortunately one that, because of its positioning at the end of the story, left me with a slightly sour taste for the whole.
But anyway. Rather, the real knife-twist in Ishiguro's arsenal is the revelation that Hailsham was a fiction meant to console not the helpless victims of this exploitative system, but the wider public uncomfortable with the side-effects of the medical advances that benefited them. The education at Hailsham was an experiment in keeping the cannon fodder happy - and, if Kathy is anything to go by, docile with fatalism - just long enough to stop them balking at their slavery. "You've had good lives," Miss Emily tells the defeated lovers, I suspect only half-believing her own reassurance, "you're cultured and educated." Well, that's okay then.
And at last we are shown that Kathy's narrator distance is hard-won self-control, not any lack of feeling; at the end, she has no more illusions, except for her ability to withstand the pain:
The fantasy never got beyond that - I didn't let it - and though the tears rolled down my face, I wasn't sobbing or out of control. I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be.