Note: This post contains spoilers!
It’s hard to find lucid prose these days. It’s even harder to find lucid prose with emotional and intellectual depth.
That’s because authors like Kazuo Ishiguro have set the bar high on this score.
Most GCSE, A Levels (and to some extent, IB) English students would likely have studied Ishiguro (the process which – depending on the quality of teaching received – may have caused bad blood between the ‘forced’ student reader and the writer).
Others would perhaps know of Ishiguro for having won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature, for his “novels of great emotional force”, which according to the Academy, have “uncovered the abyss beneath our illustory sense of connection with the world”.
While the latter half of that statement is more panegyric than substance, I do agree that Ishiguro’s writing possesses and exudes “great emotional force”, which the writer delivers without the pretence of academic ‘postmodernists’, the presumptuousness of modern-day moralists, or the populist drivel of the post-truth Twitterati.
In short, Ishiguro’s great.
And in this age of sound and fury on hyperdrive – rare.
An example of Ishiguro’s excellent writing is his 2005 novel Never Let Me Go.
This novel defies generic boundaries, with some readers finding it more sci-fi than bildungsroman, and others defining it as more dystopia than tragedy.
Interestingly, Ishiguro himself has referred to this work as an “alternative history conceit”, which I take to mean ‘a historical allegory’, or a ‘what would the world be like today if this had happened in the past’ tale.
This resistance to categorical pigeonholing mirrors Ishiguro’s oeuvre, which features a vast range of personas from very different backgrounds (a mid-20th century English butler in Remains of the Day, a Japanese mother living in England in A Pale View of Hills, a concert pianist in The Unconsoled, and a group of ‘cloned’ students in Never Let Me Go). It also reflects the novel’s overall ambivalence, whether in terms of the characters’ emotions, motives and reflections.
Given the nuance and relative lack of ‘action’ in the book, it’s amazing how this one got adapted into film (starring Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley), and a very good one, too, which I recommend.
As much as all literary works seek to reveal some aspect of humanity, Ishiguro’s writing makes this its core mission.
His fictional voice is unassuming but honest, and is all the more powerful and resonant for that.
In Never Let Me Go, this is evident in the voice of Kathy H, the protagonist, who reveals through her recollections of friendship, love, pain and growth that what gives humanity its humanness isn’t any groundbreaking historical event, but rather, the daily, seemingly banal, minutiae which form the sedimentary linings of our existence.
Among the various themes in the book, this question of ‘what makes one human’ is worth examining in detail.
For starters, the novel is set in a not-so-distant-future, and its key characters – the narrator Kathy H., her childhood friends Ruth and Tommy – are all clones, i.e. non-humans that are supposed to look and act like humans.
Perhaps one of its biggest ironies in this book is how the ‘clones’, contrary to the real human characters, are those who behave in the most human ways, as they act out of fear, pettiness, confusion, but are also shown to be deeply capable of love, kindness and sacrifice.
What is Never Let Me Go about?
The setting of this book is quintessentially English: it takes place at a fictional boarding school called Hailsham, where students had –
“… our guardians,… our own collection chests under our beds, the football, the rounders, the little path that took you all round the outside of the main house, round all its nooks and crannies, the duck pond, the food, the view from the Art Room over the fields on a foggy morning.”
What seems like your standard boarding school, however, is soon revealed to be anything but. We find out early on that the students are clones, created for the purpose of one day donating their organs to real humans.
Not everyone becomes an organ donor, though, and some of them, like the narrator Kathy, become carers instead upon entering adulthood.
Carers, as the name of the role suggests, are in charge of looking after the donors, many of whom go through multiple rounds of donation (sometimes up to four) until they ‘complete’ (a euphemism for dying).
By the time Kathy tells us about her days at Hailsham, she’s already 31, and about to reach her 12th year of being a carer. Despite sharing a similar childhood, Kathy chose to be a carer, whereas two of her closest childhood friends, Ruth and Tommy, eventually became donors (with Kathy taking care of them at different points in the novel).
Without spoiling too much of the plot, I want us to close read a specific moment in Chapter 6 – a moment which, in the narrator’s own words, bears “deeper significance”, and is arguably one of the most symbolic encounters in the entire novel.
Reading for deeper meaning: “One strange incident” in Never Let Me Go
Before we head into the passage, some context.
One of the interesting things about Hailsham’s curriculum is its emphasis on artistic creativity, which means that students are encouraged to pour their time and efforts into activities like painting and writing poetry.
A mysterious character called Madame regularly swings by the school to collect the students’ artwork assignments for a certain ‘Gallery’, which Kathy, Ruth and Tommy find to be a point of intrigue. Madame never speaks to the students, and indeed, is described to be fearful of them.
One day, while Kathy returns to the dorm to pick something up, she decides on the spur of the moment to play her favourite song – ‘Never Let Me Go’ – by Judy Bridgewater, a fictional American singer.
This decision results in a poignant and cryptic moment for Kathy, which I will reproduce below (it’s a bit long, but well worth a read):
What made the tape so special for me was this one particular song: track number three, ‘Never Let Me Go’.
It’s slow and late night and American, and there’s a bit that keeps coming round when Judy sings: ‘Never let me go… Oh baby, baby… Never let me go…’ I was eleven then, and hadn’t listened to much music, but this one song, it really got to me. I always tried to keep the tape wound to just that spot so I could play the song whenever a chance came by.
I didn’t have so many opportunities, mind you, this being a few years before Walkmans started appearing at the Sales. There was a big machine in the billiards room, but I hardly ever played the tape in there because it was always full of people. The Art Room also had a player, but that was usually just as noisy. The only place I could listen properly was in our dorm.
By then we’d gone into the small six-bed dorms over in the separate huts, and in ours we had a portable cassette player up on the shelf above the radiator. So that’s where I used to go, in the day when no one else was likely to be about, to play my song over and over.
What was so special about this song? Well, the thing was, I didn’t used to listen properly to the words; I just waited for that bit that went: ‘Baby, baby, never let me go…’ And what I’d imagine was a woman who’d been told she couldn’t have babies, and who’d really, really wanted them all her life. Then there’s a sort of miracle and she has a baby, and she holds this baby very close to her and walks around singing: ‘Baby, never let me go…’ partly because she’s so happy, but also because she’s so afraid something will happen, that the baby will get ill or be taken away from her.
Even at the time, I realised this couldn’t be right, that this interpretation didn’t fit with the rest of the lyrics. But that wasn’t an issue with me. The song was about what I said, and I used to listen to it again and again, on my own, whenever I got the chance. There was one strange incident around this time I should tell you about here. It really unsettled me, and although I wasn’t to find out its real meaning until years later, I think I sensed, even then, some deeper significance to it.
It was a sunny afternoon and I’d gone to our dorm to get something. I remember how bright it was because the curtains in our room hadn’t been pulled back properly, and you could see the sun coming in in big shafts and see all the dust in the air. I hadn’t meant to play the tape, but since I was there all by myself, an impulse made me get the cassette out of my collection box and put it into the player.
Maybe the volume had been turned right up by whoever had been using it last, I don’t know. But it was much louder than I usually had it and that was probably why I didn’t hear her before I did. Or maybe I’d just got complacent by then. Anyway, what I was doing was swaying about slowly in time to the song, holding an imaginary baby to my breast. In fact, to make it all the more embarrassing, it was one of those times I’d grabbed a pillow to stand in for the baby, and I was doing this slow dance, my eyes closed, singing along softly each time those lines came around again:
‘Oh baby, baby, never let me go…’
The song was almost over when something made me realise I wasn’t alone, and I opened my eyes to find myself staring at Madame framed in the doorway.
I froze in shock. Then within a second or two, I began to feel a new kind of alarm, because I could see there was something strange about the situation. The door was almost half open – it was a sort of rule we couldn’t close dorm doors completely except for when we were sleeping – but Madame hadn’t nearly come up to the threshold. She was out in the corridor, standing very still, her head angled to one side to give her a view of what I was doing inside.
And the odd thing was she was crying.
It might even have been one of her sobs that had come through the song to jerk me out of my dream.
When I think about this now, it seems to me, even if she wasn’t a guardian, she was the adult, and she should have said or done something, even if it was just to tell me off. Then I’d have known how to behave. But she just went on standing out there, sobbing and sobbing, staring at me through the doorway with that same look in her eyes she always had when she looked at us, like she was seeing something that gave her the creeps. Except this time there was something else, something extra in that look I couldn’t fathom.
I didn’t know what to do or say, or what to expect next. Perhaps she would come into the room, shout at me, hit me even, I didn’t have a clue. As it was, she turned and the next moment I could hear her footsteps leaving the hut. I realise the tape had gone onto the next track, and I turned it off and sat down on the nearest bed. And as I did so, I saw through the window in front of me her figure hurrying off towards the main house. She didn’t glance back, but I could tell from the way her back was hunched up she was still sobbing.
If you want a passage to show Ishiguro’s skillful storytelling, this is it.
His cliffhangers aren’t forced, and they come at just the right point to prod us along the narrative, all the while whipping up our diegetic appetite for the ‘what next’.
“Strange”, “odd” – these words recur to create an impression that something (also a recurrent word in this scene) is amiss, culminating in the moment when Kathy catches sight of Madame sobbing uncontrollably in the corridor.
The key question is, of course, why.
Why does Madame, upon seeing an eleven-year old child dancing to the tune of a ballad, with pillow-as-baby in her cradling arms, feel so incredibly sad?
If we recall Kathy’s identity as a clone, which means that she is both without a mother and unable to ever be a mother, it seems tragically ironic for her to be role-playing the one identity which seems so relatable to humans, but so unrelated to herself.
But to Madame (who is part of the operation in running Hailsham as an organ donation centre), her sadness doubles as a mix of guilt, disappointment and shame, as she realises the limitations of this grand scientific endeavour of cloning: you can clone for organs, but you can’t clone away the basic, rawest human instincts and desires of sacrifice, of loving, of wanting to feel connected to someone.
And this need for connection isn’t exclusive to the mother-child relationship, which Kathy tells us isn’t what the song is actually about, but to friendship and romance, too.
This wish for someone to ‘never let go’ foreshadows what eventually happens to Kathy vis-a-vis Ruth and Tommy, as both Ruth, Kathy’s best friend, and Tommy, Kathy’s childhood friend-turned-lover, eventually ‘complete’ after giving up their organs, leaving the protagonist behind in pensive solitude.
Sentimental as this plea of “never let me go” may seem, it symbolises the essence of every human relationship – the craving for intimacy and connectedness.
To ask a family member, a friend, or a lover to never let us go is a basic need, but it also reveals an emotional vulnerability which reverses each of us – no matter our age – to our infant selves, back to a time when we were defined by a state of literal attachment (to our mothers), which is ultimately snipped away with the umbilical cord.
And it is this vulnerability which makes us human.
In the moment above, Madame is hit by this awareness, as she realises the failure of the Hailsham project.
For all the utilitarian goals cloning may achieve, it is impossible to isolate organs from emotions, or anatomy from humanity.
In Ishiguro’s view, then, perhaps the notion of a ‘human clone’ can only ever be a paradox: to take the form of a human is to be human in its external and internal entirety; the clone can’t just wait around to fulfil its role as a biological replacement, and as such, must ‘live’ to feel the same sort of pain, desire, love and suffering as any real human heart.
But does Madame explain? “I was weeping for an altogether different reason”
Significantly, it is also at this moment when Madame – heretofore portrayed as a cold, unapproachable character – is revealed in a more human light, as she breaks down from the realisation that what they’re doing at Hailsham – creating scientific ‘solutions’ in the guise of providing a liberal humanistic education – is doomed, misguided and futile.
From Kathy’s then-early adolescent eyes, the “something else, something extra in [Madame’s] look” was something she “couldn’t fathom”.
Years later, however, when she confronts Madame at Miss Emily’s house (in Chapter 22) with her own (and Tommy’s) theory that Madame wept because she sympathised with Kathy’s infertility as a clone, she gets a different, but honest, response:
“… I was weeping for an altogether different reason. When I watched you dancing that day, I saw something else. I saw a new world coming rapidly. More scientific, efficient, yes. More cures for the old sicknesses. Very good. But a harsh, cruel world. And I saw a little girl, her eyes tightly closed, holding to her breast the old kind world, one that she knew in her heart could not remain, and she was holding it and pleading, never to let her go. That is what I saw. It wasn’t really you, what you were doing, I know that. But I saw you and it broke my heart. And I’ve never forgotten.”
There’s a whiff of post-Imperialist nostalgia in the pining after of an “old kind world” (and this is a recurrent motif in much of post-WWI British literature), but if Madame really was crying out of sorrow for the dawn of a more scientific, and by extension, less humanistic, era, then she was also complicit in bringing this ‘new world’ about.
This, rather than just the awareness of a new world-old world chasm, is the likelier reason for Madame’s sadness.
It is the tragic fact that individuals like herself are often swept up in historical winds beyond their control, which in turn compels them to act against their values, or else risk elimination (the latter which happens to another teacher, Miss Lucy, who gets fired after telling the students the truth about their roles as organ donors).
Still, those who choose to ‘get in line’ with the times don’t necessarily win out in the end.
We see this from the Headmistress Miss Emily and Madame’s lonely fate at the end of the novel, as new waves of change – often unanticipated by most – will always come in to render existing systems and beliefs obsolete, and in the process, replacing them wholesale.
Should you read Never Let Me Go? Yes. Absolutely.
Will you enjoy it? That depends.
Some people find it bland and plotless, whereas others find much to appreciate in its understated portrayal of human nature and its attentiveness to nuances in human relationships.
I belong to the latter camp, but the best way to find out is to read it for yourself.
Finally, if you’re reading Never Let Me Go because it’s a set text for English class, I hope this post has at least given you some ideas to use in your next discussion or essay.