Never Let Me Go (novel)
First edition cover
|Cover artist||Aaron Wilner|
|Genre||Dystopian, Science fiction novel, Speculative fiction|
|Publisher||Faber and Faber|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|ISBN||ISBN 1-4000-4339-5 (first edition, hardback)|
|LC Class||PR6059.S5 N48 2005|
|Preceded by||When We Were Orphans|
Never Let Me Go is a 2005 dystopian science fiction novel by Japanese-born British author Kazuo Ishiguro. It was shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize (an award Ishiguro had previously won in 1989 for The Remains of the Day), for the 2006 Arthur C. Clarke Award and for the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award. TIME magazine named it the best novel of 2005 and included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. It also received an ALA Alex Award in 2006. A film adaptation directed by Mark Romanek was released in 2010.
The novel has three acts, each chronicling a phase of the main characters' lives through first person accounts and reflections of Kathy, the protagonist. Each act is not strictly chronological.
The setting for this act is Hailsham, a fictional boarding school in England. It is clear from the peculiar way the teachers, known as "guardians", treat the students, as well as being told many times that keeping themselves healthy is extremely important, that Hailsham is not a normal boarding school. The curriculum focuses on encouraging the students to produce various forms of art, an education model that teaches no life skills. The best artwork is chosen by a woman known as "Madame", who takes the art with her when she leaves. Students believe she keeps their work in a gallery. Three Hailsham students, Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy, develop a close but complicated friendship. Kathy develops a fondness for Tommy, looking after him when he is bullied and having talks with him beside the pond.
Miss Lucy reveals the destiny of all "students" of Hailsham. The children are clones, created to be "donors" that provide vital organs for "normals" through a series of "donations" that eventually lead to the donor's death, which the characters refer to as "completion". The term refers to the fact that they have given all that they have; their purpose in life is complete.
Ruth and Tommy enter into a romantic relationship and are still together when they leave Hailsham.
In the second act, the characters, now around age 16, have moved to "the Cottages", a residential complex vastly inferior to Hailsham where they begin contact with the outside world. The buildings are cold and in poor condition, with little for the clones to do and the supervision of one maintenance man. The romance between Ruth and Tommy continues while Kathy explores her sexuality with other students but avoids long-term relationships. Kathy is often the peacemaker in the tumultuous relationship between Tommy and Ruth.
During their time at the Cottages, the characters visit Norfolk, where two of their house mates share a rumour that Hailsham students can "defer" donations for three years if they have truly fallen in love. Tommy hypothesizes that Madame collected their art to allow administrators to determine whether the clones are "truly in love", via the aspects of their souls revealed through their art. Tommy feels great anxiety because he was always bad at art and never had any of his work added to the gallery. Thus, he begins working on his new art in secret to convince Madame that he is truly in love.
Meanwhile, Ruth begins to wonder who her parents are or whom she was cloned from and rallies her friends to come with her to find her "possible". While talking about her possibly one day working in an office instead of donating, they follow a woman whom Ruth thinks might be her "possible" to an art gallery. Although they do talk with and learn about her, they discover that the woman bears little resemblance to Ruth, who now wonders if they are all cloned from "human trash".
Tensions rise among Tommy, Ruth, and Kathy as they all struggle to find acceptance and understanding outside Hailsham and with each other. Kathy puts in a request to become a "carer", a clone who cares for donors.
The third act focuses on Tommy and Ruth's time as donors and Kathy's career as a carer. About ten years go by without Kathy seeing Ruth or Tommy. Ruth had her first donation, which did not go well, and her health is deteriorating. Kathy becomes Ruth's carer, and both are aware that Ruth's next donation will most likely be her last. Ruth suggests that she and Kathy take a trip and bring Tommy with them, knowing he is in a nearby facility. Kathy and Ruth pick up Tommy and drive to an abandoned boat in the middle of a marshland. Ruth expresses regret and vocalises what had been implied: she deliberately manipulated Kathy and Tommy despite seeing that they were attracted toward each other. Attempting to make amends, Ruth hands them a piece of paper containing Madame's address, urging them to pursue a relationship and seek a deferral. Soon after, Ruth makes her second donation and "completes".
Kathy then becomes Tommy's carer, and they begin a relationship. Tommy selects pieces of his art to show to Madame, and encouraged by Ruth's last wishes, they go to Madame's address to see if they can defer Tommy's fourth donation. Tommy brings his art with him to support his claims that he and Kathy are truly in love. In addition to meeting Madame, they also encounter Miss Emily, the former headmistress of Hailsham. The couple learn that Hailsham was an experiment to give the clones a more humane treatment by assuring that at least the first half of their short lives would be happy. The gallery was used to convey to society that clones were in fact real children, real humans, and prove that they "have souls at all". However, Hailsham failed to achieve their goals due to a scandal and because of a change in public opinion regarding clones, with the public preferring them out of mind. The resulting loss of sponsorship and support caused the closing of Hailsham and the movement behind it. Kathy and Tommy also learn that Miss Lucy was dismissed for her dangerously radical open attitude towards them. Miss Emily dismisses the rumour of any deferrals, but she and Madame both assure Kathy and Tommy that at least they had lived the childhoods they wanted, while current clones are raised in inhumane conditions.
Tommy later confronts Kathy on her ongoing career as a carer, after which Kathy resigns from being Tommy's carer. The novel ends after Tommy's "completion", and while Kathy doesn't exactly make it clear what will happen after her career as a carer ends in eight months' time, she does mention wanting a quiet life in whatever centre she is sent to and says she will always cherish the memories of Hailsham, no matter where she goes.
She then goes to Norfolk and fantasises briefly about everything she remembers.
The novel's title comes from a song on a cassette tape called Songs After Dark, by fictional singer Judy Bridgewater. Kathy bought the tape during a swap meet-type event at Hailsham, which she often used to sing to and dance to the chorus: "Baby, never let me go." On one occasion, while dancing and singing, she notices Madame watching her and crying. Madame explains the encounter when they meet during Kathy's time as a carer. The tape was then lost somehow and Tommy bought her another copy while they were in Norfolk looking for Ruth's "possible".
- Kathy – The protagonist and narrator of the novel. A clone raised to be a "Donor", who are harvested for organs through a series of "donations". During her childhood, Kathy is free-spirited, kind, loving, and stands up for what is right. At the end of the novel, Kathy is a young woman who doesn't show much emotion when looking back on her past. As an adult, she criticises people less and is accepting of the lives of her and her friends.
- Tommy – A male "Donor" and friend of Kathy. First introduced as an uncreative and isolated young boy at Hailsham with a bad temper, gets tricks played on him by the other children because they want to get a reaction out of him. Initially, he reacts by having bad temper tantrums, until Miss Lucy, a Hailsham Guardian, tells him something that, for the short term, positively changes his life: it is okay if he’s not creative. He feels great relief. Then one day, Miss Lucy tells him that she shouldn't have said what she did, and Tommy goes through another transformation. Once again upset by his lack of artistic skills, he becomes a quiet and sad teenager. As he matures, Tommy becomes a young man who is generally calm and thoughtful.
- Ruth – A female "Donor" from Hailsham, described by Kathy as bossy. At the start of the novel, she is an extrovert with strong opinions and appears to be the center of social activity in her cohort; however, she is not as confident as the narrator initially perceived. She had hope for her future, but her hopes are crushed as she realises that she was born to be a Donor and has no other future. At The Cottages, Ruth undergoes a transformation to become a more aware, thoughtful person who thinks about things in depth. She is constantly trying to fit in and be mature, repudiating things from her past if she perceives it will negatively affect her image. She threw away her entire collection of art by fellow students, once her prized possession, because she sensed that the older kids at The Cottages looked down on it. She becomes an adult who is deeply unhappy and regretful. Ruth eventually gives up on all of her hopes and dreams, and tries to help Kathy and Tommy have a better life.
- Madame – A woman who visits Hailsham to pick up the children's artwork. Described as a mystery by the students at Hailsham. She acts professional and stern, but a young Kathy describes her as distant and forbidding. When the children decide to play a prank on her and swarm around her to see what she will do, they are shocked to discover that she seems disgusted by them.
- Miss Emily – Headmistress of Hailsham, can be very sharp according to Kathy. The children thought she had an extra sense in that allowed her to know where a child was if he or she was hiding.
- Miss Lucy – A teacher at Hailsham that the children feel comfortable with. She is one of the younger teachers at Hailsham, and tells the students very frankly that they exist only for organ donation. She feels a lot of stress while at Hailsham and is fired for what she tells the students.
- Chrissy - Another female "Donor" who is slightly older than the three main characters and was with them at the Cottages. She and her boyfriend, Rodney, were the ones who found Ruth's "possible" and took Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth to Norfolk. She "completes" before the book ends.
- Rodney - Chrissy's boyfriend, he was the one who originally saw Ruth's "possible". He and Chrissy are mentioned to have broken up before they "completed".
Critics disagree over the genre of the novel. Writing for The New Yorker, Louis Menand describes the novel as "quasi-science-fiction", saying, "even after the secrets have been revealed, there are still a lot of holes in the story [...] it's because, apparently, genetic science isn’t what the book is about." The New York Times book reviewer Sarah Kerr wondered why Ishiguro would write in, what she dubs, the "pop genre—sci-fi thriller", claiming the novel to "quietly upend [the genre's] banal conventions." Horror author Ramsey Campbell labelled it as one of the best horror novels since 2000, a 'classic instance of a story that's horrifying, precisely because the narrator doesn’t think it is.' Joseph O'Neill from The Atlantic suggested that the novel successfully fits into the coming of age genre.
O'Neill wrote that "Ishiguro's imagining of the children's misshapen little world is profoundly thoughtful, and their hesitant progression into knowledge of their plight is an extreme and heartbreaking version of the exodus of all children from the innocence in which the benevolent but fraudulent adult world conspires to place them." Theo Tait, in a review for The Telegraph, has a more general perspective of story: "Gradually, it dawns on the reader that Never Let Me Go is a parable about mortality. The horribly indoctrinated voices of the Hailsham students who tell each other pathetic little stories to ward off the grisly truth about the future – they belong to us; we've been told that we're all going to die, but we've not really understood."
- "All Time 100 Novels". Time. 16 October 2005. Retrieved 20 May 2010.
- Menand, Louis (28 March 2005). "Something About Kathy". New Yorker (New York). Retrieved 26 July 2013.
- Kerr, Sarah (17 April 2005). "'Never Let Me Go': When They Were Orphans". New York Times (New York). Retrieved 14 March 2011.
- O'Neill, Joseph (May 2005). "Never Let Me Go". The Atlantic. p. 123. Retrieved 14 March 2011.
- Tait, Theo (13 March 2005). "A sinister harvest". The Telegraph (London). Retrieved 26 July 2013.