Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro has been one of my favourite books for many years now – the film is also a favourite of mine! It’s a story I think about fairly often and the three main characters have stayed with me, always feeling very real and unforgettable. I recently reread the book which I think is the third time I have read it now and wanted to give a review as I don’t think I have ever reviewed this novel before!
If you’re unfamiliar with the story, Never Let Me Go is a dystopian sci-fi book set in an alternate history in the 1970s to 1990s. The story is narrated by Kathy H., a young woman who takes us through her current situation as a carer and her memories growing up at Hailsham, a school which seems very odd to us as readers but to Kathy is the norm. The main focus is on the relationships between Kathy and her two best friends, Ruth and Tommy, and the way they navigate and deal with their situations.
Be warned there will be spoilers pretty much straight away in this post, so if you don’t want to be spoiled then I wouldn’t read on (though this is a fantastic book which I urge you to read!).
If you’re at all familiar with the story, you’ll know that Kathy, Tommy and Ruth are clones. The backstory is that scientific and medical advancements were made and clones were raised to donate their organs to the human race. The clones do not live a long life and do not have any other purpose – they are never going to have jobs that anyone else could have, they can never grow old and have a family. We don’t find this out straight away and it is of course heartbreaking when we get further into the story, the ethical debate becoming clearer. I’ll talk more about this later in the post because I have a lot of thoughts on it!
The first thing I have to mention about this book is how much I adore the three main characters. They are well fleshed out, with brilliant personalities that truly do jump off the page. The first time I ever read this book, I think this is what struck me the most. I felt like I knew the characters more than some people I know in real life. Kathy is a fantastic narrator – pretty unreliable, don’t get me wrong, however the way Ishiguro has written her is brilliant. She stumbles on her memories as she recounts them, often going off on tangents before bringing herself back to the main point she is trying to make. It feels realistic and often reflects her emotions at the time. She can be quite matter of fact but that’s just her manner. She’s a very observant person and she often doesn’t say what she is thinking to other characters.
Ruth, though often an unpleasant person, is a character I truly adore. She can be quite mean to Kathy and Tommy at times and whilst I don’t believe their situation excuses her behaviour, I do think it explains it. Out of the three of them, I think she struggles the most with the fact they are donors. Ruth is both resigned to her fate and fantasises more than any other character about what she would do as a job if she could. She pretends to be someone she’s not for so much of the novel which is what most of Kathy’s frustrations with her are based on. Ruth is not a great girlfriend to Tommy and admits to him and Kathy that she knew quite early on they should be the couple. Ruth just didn’t want to end up alone. This is selfish and she knows it – I think her remorse and redemption is a brilliant part of the story and I could talk for days about Ruth!
Tommy is a breath of fresh air in the story, a character truly filled with sunshine. He is caring and though troubled with temper problems, he has a huge heart and wishes no one harm. Tommy loves both Ruth and Kathy and in all honesty, I think he just wants to be happy and live an easy life without conflict or trouble. He is truly a wonderful person and we see him grow from an angry, tormented child to a calm, caring (though always confused!) adult.
The relationships between the three are complicated. Though Tommy and Ruth are together for many years, it’s quite clear that he is much closer to Kathy. Tommy and Ruth’s relationship does not feel genuine – it’s forced and they are incompatible in a lot of ways. Their friendship however is genuine and they clearly care about each other. The three have a truly strong bond even if it is far from plain sailing. After Kathy becomes a carer, the three don’t speak to each other for years until Kathy finds Ruth and becomes her carer after hearing how badly she is doing. Even through all of the hardships, you still feel how important they are to each other. The reconciliation between Ruth and the other two near the end of her life is proof of this – though some of what she has done is hard to think about for Kathy, it’s clear she will forgive her and their love is strong. Tommy and Kathy are so good for each other and I always cry at some of their scenes together at the end. The fact they are making up for lost time is heartbreaking as you know they can’t have it back but unlike many others in the world, they won’t have extra years to make it up either because of the donations they are obliged and, though it is never explicitly said, forced to make.
Ishiguro’s story so brilliantly deals with ethics and how we as humans would potentially deal with this situation in real life and I think it is a frighteningly realistic look. There is a scene at the end of the book which is one of the most hard hitting and memorable when Kathy and Tommy go to see Madame and Miss Emily about potentially deferring their donations. They believe because they are in love and can ‘prove it’ with their artwork from both childhood and recent years, they may be able to have donations deferred so they can spend a few years together. This is a false hope and Miss Emily and Madame explain to them why they were brought up in such a sheltered way at Hailsham. They were raised humanely in comparison to other clones around the UK. The art was to prove to others in the world they they actually have a soul, not to see inside it like Ruth, Kathy and Tommy thought. This is such a heartbreaking moment as you see Kathy and Tommy grapple with the cold fact that most people in the world don’t believe they are human and (potentially more damaging) they don’t want to believe that clones have emotions, souls or anything that makes us human.
The context explained here is fascinating. Organ donations from clones have helped humans to live longer lives, to cure or help people with diseases and illnesses such as cancer. Miss Emily explains that the human race doesn’t want to go back to a time when they could die of various illnesses when now they can be cured. An overwhelming feeling of ignorance is bliss is felt here and as we as readers have followed Kathy and empathised with her and her friends, it’s hard for us to digest. Yet it isn’t unimaginable. I think the great power of this book is that it is set in the past and doesn’t focus on futuristic technology. It doesn’t feel ‘sci-fi’ in the stereotypical definition of the term. It feels like it could have happened in an alternate universe or it could happen now. This is why I think the theme sticks with me so much because of how real it feels and how we as the human race do turn a blind eye to inhumane situations at times when it benefits us.
I don’t want to end on such a negative there! I actually think we as humans are fantastic beings and we do much more good overall than bad. Though there have been and still are horrific things happening that we have caused, I have faith in us to rectify these things or at least do better. For everyone doing something truly bad in this world, I think there are many more of us doing good.
Have you read or watched Never Let Me Go? Or are there any other books which have affected you deeply and will always stay with you? Let me know in the comments!