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Never Let Me Go (novel)

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Never Let Me Go
First-edition cover of the British publication
AuthorKazuo Ishiguro
Cover artistAaron Wilner
GenreScience fiction, speculative fiction
PublisherFaber and Faber
Publication date
Publication placeUnited Kingdom
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
ISBN1-4000-4339-5 (first edition, hardback)
823/.914 22
LC ClassPR6059.S5 N48 2005
Preceded byWhen We Were Orphans 
Followed byNocturnes 

Never Let Me Go is a 2005 science fiction novel by the British author Kazuo Ishiguro. It was shortlisted for the 2005 Man 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 "100 Best English-language novels published since 1923—the beginning of TIME".[1] It also received an ALA Alex Award in 2006. A film adaptation directed by Mark Romanek was released in 2010; a Japanese television drama aired in 2016.[2]


Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro's sixth novel, takes place in an alternate reality of England during the 1990s in which mass human cloning is authorised and performed. Ishiguro started writing Never Let Me Go in 1990. It was originally titled The Student's Novel.[3]


Kathy H describes herself as a carer for donors. She reminisces about her time spent at Hailsham, a boarding school, where the teachers are known as guardians. The children are closely monitored and are instructed on the importance of producing art and staying healthy; smoking is taboo. The students' best art is selected by Madame for a gallery. Kathy develops a close friendship with two other students: Ruth C and Tommy D. Kathy develops a fondness for Tommy, looking after him when he is bullied and having private talks with him. However, Tommy and Ruth form a relationship instead. In an isolated incident, the guardian Miss Lucy tells the students that they are being raised to donate organs to others (like saviour siblings), and it is predetermined that they will die young. Miss Lucy is removed from the school as a result; the students passively accept their fate.

Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy move to the Cottages when they are 16 years old. It is the first time they are allowed to explore the outside world, but they mostly keep to themselves. Ruth and Tommy are still together, and Kathy has some sexual relationships with other men. They have housemates who are not from Hailsham; they all struggle with social skills, and are revealed to be clones. Two older housemates tell Ruth that they have seen a "possible" for Ruth, an older woman who resembles her and thus could be the original from whom she was cloned. The five of them go on a trip to see her, and the older clones discuss a rumour they have heard: that a couple can have their donations deferred if they can prove that they are in love. They believe that the privilege is for Hailsham students only and so wrongly expect that the others know how to apply for it. They find the possible in an office, but the resemblance to Ruth is only superficial; Ruth voices angrily that they must all be cloned from lower social classes.

During the trip, Kathy and Tommy leave to look for a copy of a music cassette tape that Kathy had lost at Hailsham. Tommy's recollection of the tape and desire to find it make clear the depth of his feelings for Kathy. They find the tape, and Tommy shares with Kathy a theory that the reason Madame collected their art was to determine which couples were truly in love, citing a guardian who had said that their art revealed their souls. They do not tell Ruth of the found tape or of Tommy's theory about the deferral; when Ruth finds out about these, she attempts to drive a wedge between Tommy and Kathy, telling Kathy that even if Ruth and Tommy were to split up, Tommy would never enter into a relationship with Kathy because of her sexual history. A few weeks later, Kathy applies to become a carer, meaning that she will not see Ruth or Tommy for about ten years.

Ruth's first donation goes badly and her health deteriorates. Kathy hears and becomes Ruth's carer, and both are aware that Ruth's next donation will probably be her last. Ruth suggests that she and Kathy take a trip and take Tommy with them. During the trip, Ruth expresses regret for keeping Kathy and Tommy apart. Attempting to make amends, she hands them Madame's address, urging them to seek a deferral. Shortly afterward, Ruth makes her second donation and "completes", a euphemism for dying. Kathy becomes Tommy's carer, and they finally enter a relationship. Encouraged by Ruth's last wishes, they go to Madame's house to attempt to defer Tommy's fourth donation, taking new artwork from Tommy to support their claim that they are in love.

The clones are invited in by Madame, and also meet Miss Emily, their former headteacher, who lives with her. The two women reveal that deferrals do not exist; Hailsham guardians did try to give the clones a humane education more than other institutions, and the gallery was meant to convey to the outside world that the clones are in fact normal human beings with a soul and deserve better treatment. It is revealed that the ethics experiment failed against the tide of public opinion, which is why Hailsham has closed down. Tommy, angry when faced with his death, confronts Kathy about her work as a carer. Kathy resigns as Tommy's carer, but still visits him. The novel ends after Tommy "completes": Kathy is left contemplating everything she remembers and everything she lost.


Never Let Me Go shares its title with a fictional song within. Kathy treasures its fictional album, Songs after Dark by Judy Bridgewater, which she purchased as a cassette tape at a Hailsham sale. On one occasion, while dancing to the song's chorus, which again contains the title line, she notices Madame watching her and crying. Madame explains the encounter when they meet at the end of the book: while Kathy reveals to the reader that she was simply thinking about holding a child, Madame connects Kathy's behaviour to the children's questioned humanity. In another section of the book, Kathy refers to the three main characters "letting each other go" after leaving the cottages.


Main characters[edit]

  • Kathy – The protagonist and narrator of the novel. She is a 31-year-old clone who was raised to be an organ donor. During her childhood, Kathy is free-spirited, kind, and loving, and stands up for what is right. At the end of the novel, Kathy is a young woman who does not give away much emotion as she deeply contemplates her past. As an adult, she criticises people less and is accepting of the lives of her friends.
  • Tommy – A male donor and childhood friend of Kathy, uncreative and isolated at Hailsham. He has a bad temper and is the object of tricks played by the other children. Miss Lucy tells him it is okay not to be creative, giving him relief, but takes it back years later, making him a quiet and sad teenager. As he matures, Tommy becomes a young man who is generally calm and thoughtful, but retains his old spirit.
  • Ruth – A childhood friend of Kathy, Ruth is a female donor from Hailsham who is described by Kathy as bossy. At the start of the novel, she is a self-conscious extrovert with strong opinions who attempts to be the centre of social activities. Her hopes for the future are crushed as she processes that she was born to be a donor. Ruth undergoes a transformation to become a more aware person, thinking in greater depth. She becomes an adult who is deeply unhappy and regretful.

Minor characters[edit]

  • Madame (Marie-Claude) – A woman who visits Hailsham to collect the children's artwork. Described as a mystery by the students at Hailsham, she appears professional and stern, and a young Kathy describes her as distant and forbidding. The children are shocked to discover that she seems disgusted by them, but she weeps when she sees Kathy dance to a love song called "Never Let Me Go".
  • Miss Emily – Headmistress of Hailsham. She can be very sharp, according to Kathy. The children thought that she had an extra sense that allowed her to know where children were hiding.
  • Miss Lucy – A teacher at Hailsham with whom the children feel comfortable. 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 at Hailsham and is fired for what she tells the students.
  • Miss Geraldine – A teacher at Hailsham who works with younger students on their art.
  • Chrissie – A female donor, slightly older than the three main characters, joining them at the Cottages. She completes (dies because of her organ donations) before the book ends.
  • Rodney – Chrissie's boyfriend, the one who originally sees Ruth's possible, the person from whom Ruth might have been cloned, out in Norfolk. He and Chrissie are mentioned to have broken up before she completed.


Ishiguro has stated that the novel began with a plot involving a nuclear bomb, but that he then began to wonder "what the 20th century might have looked like if the incredible developments that took place in nuclear physics, culminating in the creation of the atom and hydrogen bombs, had taken place instead in the field of biology, specifically in cloning".[4]

Ishiguro said he began writing the novel in the 1990s, without a clear idea of his intentions.[5] In 2001, listening to a radio broadcast on biotechnology, he suddenly decided to direct his new novel to deal with "the sadness of the human condition". He also proposed to deal with "some of the oldest questions in literature (…) 'What does it mean to be human?' 'What is the soul?' 'What is the purpose for which we've been created, and should we try to fulfill it?'"[5]

In Contemporary Literature, author Anne Whitehead highlights the novel's focus on healthcare as particularly thought-provoking, with Kathy's status as a "carer" defining much of her adult life. Whitehead writes, "[Kathy's] preoccupations with professional success and with minor inconsistencies in the system mean that she is not addressing either her own imminent death or the larger inequities and injustices at work," and wonders, "Is 'caring,' viewed in this light, a form of labor that is socially valuable because Kathy is making a positive difference to others (preventing "agitation"), or—given the political resonances of Ishiguro's choice of word here—is it a means of preventing resistance and unrest?"[6]

John Mullan speculates that the novel's modern setting is "calculated to have a defamiliarizing effect. While this novel measures carefully the passing of time, its chronology, we soon realize, is removed from any historical reality that we can recognize".[7]


Critical reception[edit]

Upon release, the book received generally positive reviews. On Metacritic, the book received a 78 out of 100 based on 34 critic reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[8] According to Bookmarks, the book received "positive" reviews based on 10 critic reviews with 6 being "rave" and 2 being "positive" and 2 being "mixed".[9] Globally, the work, based on Complete Review, was received generally well with much confusion with the site saying on the consensus "No consensus, though many are impressed (and even more: confused) by how he goes about it".[10] The book also, based on assessments of press reviews from Complete Review, ranged from "B" to a "D".[11]

Louis Menand, in The New Yorker, described 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".[12] Sarah Kerr, in The New York Times, characterizes the novel's setup as "potentially dime-store-novel" and "an enormous gamble," but elaborates that "the theme of cloning lets [Ishiguro] push to the limit ideas he's nurtured in earlier fiction about memory and the human self; the school's hothouse seclusion makes it an ideal lab for his fascination with cliques, loyalty and friendship."[13]

Horror author Ramsey Campbell labeled it 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".[14]

Joseph O'Neill from The Atlantic suggested that the novel successfully fits into the coming of age genre. O'Neill writes 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".[15]

Theo Tait, a writer for The Daily Telegraph, wrote: "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".[16]

Awards and Lists[edit]

The book continued to receive acclaim among many critics lists during and after its release. According to The Greatest Books, a site that aggregates book lists, it is "the 277th greatest book of all time".[17] In 2019, the novel ranked 4th on The Guardian's list of the 100 best books of the 21st century.[18]


Mark Romanek directed a 2010 film adaptation of Never Let Me Go starring Carey Mulligan as Kathy, Andrew Garfield as Tommy, and Keira Knightley as Ruth.

In Japan 2014, the Horipro agency produced a stage adaptation, Watashi wo Hanasanaide (私を離さないで). Directors included Ken Yoshida, Takeyoshi Yamamoto, Yuichiro Hirakawa, and Akimi Yoshida.

In 2016, under the same title, Tokyo Broadcasting System Television aired a TV drama adaptation set in Japan starring Haruka Ayase as Kyoko Hoshina and Haruma Miura as Tomohiko Doi.[19]

A television series adaptation was optioned at FX, to be produced by DNA TV, Searchlight Television and FXP, with Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, Marc Munden and Melissa Iqbal executive producing.[20] It would have premiered on Hulu in the United States, Star in other territories and Star+ in Latin America with Viola Prettejohn, Tracey Ullman and Kelly Macdonald starring.[21] However, in February 2023, it was announced that FX had cancelled the series before production began.[22]


  1. ^ Grossman, Lev (8 January 2010). "All-Time 100 Novels". Time. Retrieved 13 January 2020.
  2. ^ "Never Let Me Go (Programme Site)". Never Let Me Go (Programme Site). TBS.co.jp. Retrieved 29 January 2016.
  3. ^ "Never Let Me Go: Context". SparkNotes. Retrieved 20 April 2021.
  4. ^ Kato, Norihiro (1 March 2011). Emmerich, Michael (ed.). "Send in the Clones". The American Interest. Archived from the original on 25 June 2022. Retrieved 28 February 2023.
  5. ^ a b Ishiguro, Kazuo (25 March 2006). "Future imperfect". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 25 January 2024.
  6. ^ Whitehead, Anne (Spring 2011). "Writing with Care: Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go"". Contemporary Literature. 52 (1): 54–88. doi:10.1353/cli.2011.0012.
  7. ^ "Bloomsbury Collections – Kazuo Ishiguro – Contemporary Critical Perspectives". bloomsburycollections.com. Retrieved 20 April 2021.
  8. ^ "Never Let Me Go". Metacritic. Archived from the original on 19 June 2010. Retrieved 14 January 2023.
  9. ^ "Never Let Me Go". Bookmarks. Retrieved 16 January 2024.
  10. ^ "Never Let Me Go". Complete Review. 4 October 2023. Retrieved 4 October 2023.
  11. ^ "Never Let Me Go". Complete Review. 4 October 2023. Retrieved 4 October 2023.
  12. ^ Menand, Louis (28 March 2005). "Something About Kathy". The New Yorker. New York. Retrieved 26 July 2013.
  13. ^ Kerr, Sarah (17 April 2005). "'Never Let Me Go': When They Were Orphans". The New York Times. New York. Retrieved 14 March 2011.
  14. ^ "Ramsey Campbell interviewed by David McWilliam". Gothic Imagination at the University of Stirling, Scotland. 24 September 2012. Retrieved 29 November 2015.
  15. ^ O'Neill, Joseph (May 2005). "Never Let Me Go". The Atlantic. p. 123. Retrieved 14 March 2011.
  16. ^ Tait, Theo (13 March 2005). "A sinister harvest". The Telegraph. London. Retrieved 26 July 2013.
  17. ^ "Never Let Me Go". The Greatest Books. 16 February 2024. Retrieved 16 February 2024.
  18. ^ "The 100 best books of the 21st century". The Guardian. London. 21 September 2019. Retrieved 22 September 2019.
  19. ^ "Never let Me Go Cast (in Japanese)". Never Let Me Go (Programme Site). TBS.co.jp. Retrieved 29 January 2016.
  20. ^ Hailu, Selome (9 May 2022). "'Never Let Me Go' Series in Development at FX". Variety.
  21. ^ Porter, Rick (25 October 2022). "'Never Let Me Go' Drama Lands FX/Hulu Series Order". The Hollywood Reporter.
  22. ^ Otterson, Joe (2 February 2023). "'Never Let Me Go' Series Not Moving Forward at FX". Variety. Retrieved 3 February 2023.

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