Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro
The facts of life
A review by Ruth Scurr
[Ed. note: Spoiler warning -- the following review gives away plot details and/or
"I was thinking about the rubbish, the flapping plastic in the branches,
the shore-line of odd stuff caught along the fencing, and I half-closed my
eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I'd ever lost since my
childhood had washed up, and I was now standing here in front of it . . ."
This powerful image appears on the last page of Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel,
Never Let Me Go. Kath, a woman in her early thirties in the late 1990s,
is alone and silently weeping beside a barbed wire fence at the edge of a field
in Norfolk. She has recently lost her lover, Tommy, an old school friend. Earlier,
she lost Ruth, another friend from school. Tommy and Ruth had slow, stoical
deaths, and Kath knows she will follow them soon. Inescapable death, loss, the
destruction or dissipation of what once was valued, love and life reduced over
time to detritus cast on the wind: these are the grand mortal subjects Ishiguro
His approach is brilliantly oblique. At first, Kath seems familiar: another
of Ishiguro's unreliable narrators. Her only female predecessor is the Japanese
widow Etsuko in his first novel, A
Pale View of Hills (1982); but male narrators subtly undermine their own
partial perspectives in each of the subsequent novels: An
Artist of the Floating World (1986), The
Remains of the Day (1989), The
Unconsoled (1995) and When
We Were Orphans (2000). "This was all a long time ago so I might have
some of it wrong", Kath disclaims at the start of Chapter Two. She proceeds
to tell the story of her childhood friendship with Tommy and Ruth. She evokes
their 1970s boarding school, Hailsham -- an experimental institution, keen on
creativity and artistic achievement -- idyllically situated in rural England.
She recalls adolescence and the growth of childish attachment into overtly sexual
sentiment. In particular, she traces the development of a special sympathy between
herself and Tommy.
Despite this special sympathy, it is Ruth, not Kath, who becomes Tommy's girlfriend
at school, and afterwards when they all live together in the Cottages, which
resemble universal student digs -- damp, cold and shabbily furnished. It is
only later in life that Kath and Tommy become lovers; by the time they do, many
of the dreams and illusions nurtured in childhood have been lost, and the opportunity
to realize their love is greatly diminished.
Ishiguro's narrators are often insinuating. "This was just over a month
ago, when as you will recall, the days were still sunny, though the leaves were
already falling", explains the ageing painter in An Artist of the Floating
World. The reader, of course, recalls no such thing, but is drawn more deeply
into the novel. In Never Let Me Go, Kath makes similar remarks. "I
don't know how it was where you were", she says, before elaborating further
on Hailsham. The details she provides are curiously abstract -- rarely visual
or sensual -- and the effect is to encourage us to access our own intimate memories
of growing up at school: the teachers, rules, crushes and peers. Kath's memory
of the secret guard of girls pledged to protect a certain Miss Geraldine from
a vague but terrible kidnap plot, for example, will resonate with many:
"I was never sure if Ruth had actually invented the secret guard herself,
but there was no doubt she was the leader . . . . We believed Miss Geraldine
was the best guardian in Hailsham, and we worked on presents to give her --
a large sheet with pressed flowers glued over it comes to mind. But our reason
for existing, of course, was to protect her."
Counterposing insinuating and disconcerting narrative effects is a technique
Ishiguro has used in the past and expertly perfected. For all their generic
familiarity, Kath's school memories include some very strange details. Twelve
pages into the novel comes her easily overlooked comment: "I don't know
how it was where you were, but at Hailsham we had to have some form of medical
almost every week". Why? Later Kath remembers a responsible teacher (or
guardian) cautioning her charges against smoking: "It's not good that I
smoked. It wasn't good for me so I stopped it. But what you must understand
is that for you, all of you, it's much, much worse to smoke than it ever was
for me". Again, why?
The answers to these small, troubling questions are provided in the sports
pavilion one day. Aged fifteen and in their last year at school, Kath and her
friends have begun speculating excitedly about their futures and careers. Most
of them have recently discovered sex. Yet they are still children, interested
in things like "an especially disgusting way of blowing your nose for when
you really wanted to put a boy off". Overhearing this poignant teenage
medley of optimism, innocence and ambition, one of the guardians suddenly silences
her class; serious and distressed she tells them:
"None of you will go to America, none of you will be film stars. And
none of you will be working in supermarkets as I heard some of you planning
the other day. Your lives are set out for you. You'll become adults, then
before you're old, before you're even middle-aged, you'll start to donate
your vital organs. That's what each of you was created to do . . . . You were
brought into this world for a purpose, and your futures, all of them, have
Hailsham is a school for human clones. It is experimental in attempting to
prove to the wider world that clones are more than the sum of their bodily parts,
are creative and artistic in childhood like normal human beings, and possess
whatever it is that is meant, loosely, figuratively, or spiritually, by the
word "soul". Never Let Me Go takes the subject of mortality
to a vivid extreme. "If you're to have decent lives, you have to know who
you are and what lies ahead of you", the children at Hailsham are told.
Yet after the terrible truth has been revealed, they comprehend it only abstractly
and distantly: just as ordinary, young, healthy people comprehend death -- something
inevitable, but still unthinkable. If Kath were a woman in her eighties, crying
alone at the end of the novel because her two closest friends from school had
recently died, her story would be touching but reassuringly banal. In making
Kath and her friends clones, compressing the time-frame of their lives and hideously
constraining their chances of happiness, Ishiguro has found an ingenious way
to evade banality and bring the reader to a raw confrontation with death --
loss -- and the unendurable fragility of everything we love.
The beauty in this novel must be carefully distinguished from its power to
distress. Ultimately, there is a connection: the depth and quality of the relationships
between Kath, Tommy and Ruth certainly accentuate the cruelty of their deaths.
From under the shadow of their fate, Ishiguro draws warmly compelling vignettes
of love and friendship that cumulatively establish an urgent and engrossing
narrative pace. During their time at the Cottages -- a transitional period between
leaving school and starting work as professional carers for clones already donating
their organs -- Kath remembers Tommy discovering her with a stash of pornographic
"I moved through the pages quickly, not wanting to be distracted by
any buzz of sex coming off those pages. In fact, I hardly saw the contorted
bodies, because I was focusing on the faces. Even in the little adverts for
videos or whatever tucked away to the side, I checked each model's face before
When Tommy sees this he is perplexed:
"Are you looking for something, Kath?"
"What do you mean? I'm just looking at dirty pictures."
"Just for kicks?" "I suppose you could say that." I put
down one mag and started on the next one.
"Kath, you don't . . . . Well, if it's for kicks, you don't do it like
that. You've got to look at the pictures much more carefully. It doesn't really
work if you go that fast."
"How do you know what works for girls? Or maybe you've looked these
over with Ruth. Sorry, not thinking."
"Kath, what are you looking for?"
Soon Kath storms off, but afterwards reflects, "I'd felt comforted, protected
almost". There is great tenderness and humour implicit in this scene. Here
are a man and a woman who have loved each other since childhood, but not yet
had sex together. In response to pornography, she is determinedly focusing on
human faces, and he is trying to explain gently a more conventional approach.
In this instance, as in many others, the love between Kath and Tommy transcends
their cross purposes.
In fact, Kath is searching for the original version of herself: the human
model from which her own genetic structure was borrowed. She suspects that she
and her friends were copied from trash: "junkies, prostitutes, winos, tramps".
She wants to protect Tommy from this idea because she loves him. He, in a different
way, wants to protect her too.
Never Let Me Go is a novel that celebrates the loving impulse to protect.
It projects this noble emotion onto a dystopian vision of the brave new world
that medical science might inaugurate. The clones have been created because
of the human desire to postpone death indefinitely by finding protection in
everlasting biological health. Far from deconstructing this desire, the lives
of the clones further affirm it: they too want passionately to go on living
and protecting the things they dearly love. At school Kath had a tape of a song
with the lyrics: "Baby, baby, never let me go". Even though she understood
from an early age that she and her friends could never reproduce, she used to
dance round the dormitory clutching a pillow to herself and imagining that this
song was about a woman who thought she would never have a baby, but then at
last did. Kath knows the song is really about something else, but that does
not matter to her. This is the closest she will ever come to experiencing maternal
There is an important similarity between Ishiguro's new novel and his first.
Hailsham is a special sheltered environment for vulnerable children who stand
no chance of happiness in later life, and there is some disagreement between
the teacher guardians about how far it is right or helpful to protect the children
from the harsh reality of the adult lives ahead of them. Remembering this when
they have at last become lovers after Ruth's death, Kath and Tommy remain unsure:
would it have been useful, or even possible, for them to understand earlier
the shape of their distressing future? The problem of protecting children is
also prominent in A Pale View of Hills. Remembering her early married
life in Nagasaki in the aftermath of the atomic bomb, the widow Etsuko recalls
a strange little girl called Mariko, playing alone on the scrubland, absconding
from school and reacting violently to her mother's new American lover. Mariko,
unlike the children at Hailsham, is helplessly exposed to an adult world she
cannot cope with. Her disturbance dates from something she saw at the age of
five in Tokyo during the war: a very thin woman drowning her baby in the river.
Her own mother knows this memory haunts Mariko, but still she chooses to drown
the child's pet kittens in a desperate scene at the end of the novel: "Aren't
you old enough yet to see there are other things besides these filthy little
animals? You'll just have to grow up a little. You simply can't have these sentimental
attachments forever . . . . Don't you understand that, child? Don't you understand?".
Twenty-three years after this searing portrait of a mother so brutalized by
war that she no longer feels the urge to protect her child, Ishiguro has written
a heart-rending story about the desire to hold on to sentimental attachments
for ever. In Never Let Me Go he shows that this desire is no less profound
for being essentially childish. It is as though, after all these years, the
plight of that poor little girl who watched silently as her mother drowned her
kittens, has been redressed. Mariko was denied the protection for her childish
sentimental attachments that Kath and her friends find at Hailsham, and carry
with them into the brutal world beyond. For all the shattering sadness in her
later life, Kath finally comes to understand the value of what she was given
at school when, in her capacity as a carer, she encounters a fellow clone close
"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 all the things that can be lost or stolen, childhood is the most precious.
Ishiguro has long been preoccupied by this idea, and has painstakingly developed
it throughout his oeuvre. From this perspective, his new novel can be understood
as more beautiful and celebratory than harrowing or upsetting. When Kath stands
alone on the last page, looking at all the rubbish that has caught on the barbed
wire fence and in the branches of the trees, and imagines it to be "the
spot where everything I'd ever lost since my childhood had washed up",
she realizes that in itself her childhood was happy -- odd, certainly -- but
undeniably happy. It turns out to be the root of the strength and stoicism that
enable her to complete and control her fantasy in that field in Norfolk at the
"and if I waited long enough, a tiny figure would appear on the horizon
across the field, and gradually get larger until I'd see it was Tommy, and
he'd wave, maybe even call. 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."
Ruth Scurr is
a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at King's College, Cambridge.