Imagine Caliban as an adolescent girl. Like Shakespeare’s monster who learns enough to curse learning, Kathy H., the narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro’s devastating new novel Never Let Me Go, comes to doubt what she learned at Hailsham, an isolated boarding school where students spent their time making arts and crafts to exchange with each other. “Why train us, encourage us, make us produce all of that? If we’re just going to give donations anyway, then die, why all of those lessons?” Kathy asks once her best friend is dead and Tommy, the love of her life, is about to die. This question could be asked by anyone about any school, but Hailsham students are clones being raised and trained to donate their organs to people with cancer and other incurable diseases. Today the test tube is the witch who gave birth to Caliban.
The death sentence that is Hailsham can for much of the book only be read between the lines, and as in Ishiguro’s five previous novels, horror lies in the mundane. In The Remains of The Day (1989), his Booker-winning novel about an English butler whose master dabbles in fascism, the polish on the silver cheers up a visiting cabinet minister enough to make him sit down for talks with an ambassador from Nazi Germany. In When We Were Orphans (2000), a tear in his kimono sleeve makes Akira, a Japanese boy happily living in China, fear that he’ll be sent back to his native country for not being Japanese enough. (For Never Let Me Go‘s Tommy, his body is the garment that must be treated properly, and a small cut on his elbow makes him too scared to bend it for fear his whole arm will “unzip.”) Born in Nagasaki, Japan, before moving to England at the age of five, Ishiguro has shown himself to be at home writing through the voices of people from either culture, and now, through Kathy H., giving him two entries on the short list of female voices convincingly evoked by men. (His first novel, 1982’s A Pale View of Hills, was narrated by a Japanese woman living in England, reflecting on her daughter’s recent suicide.) But how many male writers have female characters who, like them, have never been a mother’s daughter?
A 1984 for the bioengineering age, the novel is a warning and a glimpse into the future whose genius will be recognized as reality catches up. (Although in the same way that Kathy and her friend Ruth’s late-night chats and questions about sex could be those of any girls, their fate is just as certain as the fate of the millions of children now forced into prostitution, factories, and other life-threatening work.) For Orwell’s Winston Smith, war was peace and freedom was slavery. For Kathy, dying after a second or third or fourth donation is known as “completing,” while the horrible question of
what is being donated is never answered, reflecting the blindness of people who “preferred to believe these organs appeared from nowhere, or at most that they grew in a kind of vacuum.”
Like Winston erasing and rewriting history for the Ministry of Information, Kathy becomes complicit in her friends’ grisly fate as she becomes a “carer” sent to keep them calm from one donation to the next, a job that puts off the day when she herself will begin donating. For Ruth, caring means talking about Hailsham and remembering lessons timed so that “we were always just too young to understand properly the latest piece of information.” Smoking is worse for them than it was for other people (since their lungs would make others sick) and they are shown horrible pictures of what smoking does to your insides. Hailsham is to Kathy as Ishiguro is to the reader, so that by the time he has a well-meaning guardian finally follow the innocuous “donate” with “your vital organs,” it’s too late to object. Rather you want to get back to the football pitch to see Tommy fly into one of his rages (for which he is ridiculed, but which arise from the fact that he alone understands what being at Hailsham means), or see what’s available at the next art exchange, like a pompommed pencil case “a deep tan colour with circled red dots drifting all over it,” the closest Ishiguro comes to describing an organ. Creating art, the best of which is mysteriously taken by a guardian known as Madame, shows students what they’re like “inside” and prepares them in a small way for their greater sacrifice, even as Madame shows their work to the outside world to prove that clones have souls and deserve an education if not an entire life.
Before dying, Ruth suggests that Madame can grant couples a three-year deferral depending in part on the quality of their art and whether they are in love. Told he had a year to live, the English novelist Anthony Burgess wrote five novels in that time, then lived another 30 years. The most haunting thing about
Never Let Me Go is that for Kathy and her friends such freedom is unimaginable.