Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is a rare discovery because when it haunts you, you welcome it. The story revolves around the short and entwined lives of Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy; the last of whom explains everything from her perspective – from early childhood to the age of thirty.
Kathy is a carer, and immediately she tells us that her wards aren’t the elderly or naturally sick, but her dearest friends and schoolmates. We learn that the people she grew up with spend their final years undergoing a series of “donations” far more involuntary than they sound, and that this fact is unremarkable. Through Kathy’s memories, we learn about her youth in Hailsham school, and the coming-of-age revelation that she, and the entire student body, are clones. They are raised in the idyllic heart of England, taught their ABC’s, and warned to never smoke or jeopardize their health so that one day after many, many donations, they can complete their purpose.
Kathy’s bonds with the people around her are the most touching part of this story. The fragility of tenderness and the intricacy of humanity that Ishiguro captures in Kathy’s complicated love for both Ruth and Tommy is heartbreaking and fantastical at once – like the genre-defying Sci-Fi this is – humanness warms everything. Looking to the inevitable from Kathy’s eyes, surrounded by nervous affection and blind, embarrassed hope in the face of it all, there is a sense of understanding for the miniature pains she and Ruth insist on inflicting on each other, and the complex familiarity that keeps her and Tommy close and distant at once.
Even though this is the kind of novel you hear of people soaking the pages to pulp with tears (absolutely not personally guilty) do not make the mistake of writing it off as daunting. You should read this book in spite of the high odds of sobbing; that in itself is a testament to the raw nerve of empathy we try to avoid, that Ishiguro plays upon. In the words of one of the organic human characters, Never Let Me Go evokes a reaction to “prove you had souls at all”. The connection between characters becomes our own, and a mesh of instinct and sharpened social awareness is what seats the story in one’s chest for a long time after Kathy has finished talking.
Never Let Me Go asks you not to be afraid of the delicacy of life or joy, and that in itself eradicates any excuse not to read it. Open yourself to what we shield from; this is a beautiful story.
“Kathy” illustration and words by Esmeralda Voegele-Downing