This year I have set myself a challenge of reading 50 books in 2015. My first book for the year was a Christmas present from one of the most well-read, feminist friends that I’ve got (thanks Alex xx) – Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go.’
Never Let Me Go is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking. Through the character of Kathy H, Ishiguro asks us to look at our own humanity, and the humanity of the world we live in, and questions what makes our lives worthwhile, what gives us purpose and what gives us meaning.
The most remarkable thing about ‘Never Let Me Go,’ for me, was how understated Ishiguro is as he carries us through the lives of Kathy H, Ruth and Tommy as they go to school, fight, fall in love, experiment with sex, find things and lose things, and attempt to make sense of the world.
We see the world through Kathy’s eyes. For the first half of the novel, that means only seeing as far as the woods that border Hailsham and within the school corridors and gardens. And, for the most part, I found myself wholly invested in the narrow bounds of Kathy’s world. I didn’t question what was outside of the borders of Hailsham unless Kathy did. I didn’t wonder about the role of the Guardians, or the purpose of the Gallery or why there was such a focus on health and exercise unless Kathy did.
This makes it all the more heartbreaking as you slowly piece together the lives, and purpose, of these ‘students.’ We learn as they learn that ‘students’ have two purposes in this world – to have their organs harvested for the rest of the British population, or to care for the students after each organ donation so they can recover well enough to donate again – until they reach ‘completion.’
I found myself dreading turning the pages as I approached the end of ‘Never Let Me Go.’ I didn’t want to know what had happened to create this world because I knew it would be banal. Right from the beginning as I explored Hailsham as Kathy, I had an uneasy feeling that Ishiguro was going to show me just how similar our world is to theirs.
Kathy, Tommy and Ruth (and all the rest of them) love, they fear, they rage and they accept that they live in world that is deeply unequal, cruel and exploitative. They accept that they have a predetermined place in that world, and they – like most of us – work out a way to live within it.
… that’s not to say that there is no resistance – there is. We find out at the very end that there is are movements challenging the practice of cloning, trying to win better conditions for students and show the humanity of the clones the rest of the population is feeding off to survive.
We also find out at the end that these movements, so far, have been futile. When we are taken into Madam’s house and we find out the truth about ‘the gallery’ I felt so conflicted. On the one hand, we hear a story of deep humanity. They had spent their lives trying to reach people’s hearts and show them that students like Kathy, Tommy and Ruth have inherent value and worth, just like humans do. On the other hand, we hear this story while standing in Madam and Miss Emily’s house, And in that moment, it feels pathetic. Miss Emily is old, Madam pushes out of the shadows in a wheelchair, she has fought her whole life – it feels – to get to this moment where she comes face to face with her students who ask her for mercy that she cannot provide. At that moment, which is so ripe with hope and desperation for them, she is half gazing over their shoulders waiting for the removalists to arrive.
That is the uncomfortable suggestion that runs through the whole of ‘Never Let Me Go.’
Ishiguro is constantly forcing us to ask whether despite our best efforts, bursting hearts and determination, do we really have any agency over our lives? Are we capable of giving our lives meaning beyond what society dictates for us?