Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

Publisher: Faber.

Published: 2005.

Rating: 10/10.


Never Let Me Go (2005) is a chilling dystopian novel that takes place in what appears to be 1950’s England. The novels follows the coming-of-age of a bunch of schoolchildren as they grew up in a boarding school environment, and then move to housing facilities once they are old enough. There is a slight difference about these children – they are clones who have been purposely created for organ harvesting. Sounds gruesome – it is.

However, Ishiguro brilliantly centres the narrative in the characters, foregrounding humanity over the science-fiction aspects of the novel. The first half of the novel follows the children’s time at Hailsham, their boarding school. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy’s growth is chronicled among their peers so the novel begins by analysing their social interactions from friendship, fitting in, popularity, and life at the school.  Although they are largely cut-off from the outside world, through their time at the boarding school they explore pop culture, adolescence, and the blossoming of their own identities through creative pursuits like drawing, collecting and music. This is an interesting plot device for a novel about clones. It presents these characters as human beings fully capable of emotions and social interactions. It only makes the tragedy of their fate more gut-wrenching.

Once they become of age at 16 they leave the school where they are housed at the Cottages until they are ready to become carers for others who are donating their organs. From this point forward, they have more freedom to explore the outside world, and are enamoured by wonders they have never witnessed before like adverts, magazines and porn. After there stay at the Cottages, they do their duty as carers for a number of years, with some working for longer time than others until eventually they begin their own organ donations. This is a very harrowing section of the novel as we see numerous characters growing weaker before they eventually pass away. Their memories pass quietly, as only their friends remember who they were, which is the ultimate tragedy of the novel. 

Like in The Remains of the Day (1989), Ishiguro presents characters who are somewhat disconnected, creating a slightly cold feeling throughout the novel. Mr Stevens Junior from TROTD was disillusioned by his position as a butler for his employer, a Nazi-sympathiser, and did not allow himself to express his romantic feelings for Miss Kenton, the maid. In NLMG the characters have been brought up to believe their only purpose in life is to donate their organs. For that reason, although they desire more in life, they submit to what they have been told, which presents a somewhat disconnected feeling towards the reader, who feels they should try to escape. In using these techniques, Ishiguro cleverly creates a feeling of sympathy towards his characters, and we, as the readers, understand the injustices going on with their positions in life. 

Truth is also a major theme throughout his novels. The novel is told from the perspective of Kathy who, at times like Mr Stevens Junior from TROTD, is an unreliable narrator. We only get her perspective when she tells us about her upbringing in the school, her time at the Cottages, and how other characters wronged her. Her flashbacks show that her memory is not completely intact and that she remembers events differently from others. That is not to say she is a pathological liar, but her perspective is subjective like everyone else. From the narrative, we understand that Kathy hides her feelings quite a lot – in fact she often keeps silent when it comes to telling the truth or expressing emotions. For that reason, we cannot take her thoughts as gospel, as she may be distorting the narrative to the reader, or keeping information from us. It is only from the unfolding of the narrative that we learn about her feelings towards Tommy, not from her own admission.

In this way, Ishiguro creates an interesting chronicle of memories and flashbacks for readers to analyse and deconstruct, finding a deep-seated humanity and complexity within the characters at the heart of this harrowing dystopian fiction. 

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