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Kazuo Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go

Ishiguro himself has said that he didn’t know what this book was about when he was writing it, only that it was about a strange group of students in the English countryside. This is, of course, trademark Ishiguro. We read his books and everything looks familiar but somehow something is not quite right. When we start this story, like Ishiguro himself, we see a group of students at what looks like a fairly conventional English mixed (that’s coed for the American reader) boarding school. Indeed, it seems almost idyllic. But something is wrong. Firstly, they don’t have teachers but guardians. Secondly, they seem to spend all their time there, with no holidays. Thirdly, there is no mention of family – no parents, no siblings. Fourthly, the story is narrated in flashback by Kathy and she is now a carer. Carer of what? She seems to be dealing with donors and donations. Of what? Blood? Gradually, it does become clear. The students are clones who have been created to act as organ donors and, as adults, will be used for that purpose, till they have “completed”, i.e. died.

For us, as readers, there is a clear problem. These are apparently normal people. They are no different in appearance from other humans, They read books, have sex, create and enjoy works of art, listen to music, watch TV. The only difference from us is that they cannot, apparently reproduce, and, as mentioned, do not have families. Of course, you can read this book – and Ishiguro may have intended this – as a terrible indictment of racism, of the dehumanizing of people and peoples by self-styled superior races, of medical experiments (think genetic modification and stem cells as well as, of course, cloning) and straightforward exploitation of people to benefit the rich. It can also be read as asking the question as to where we draw the line between who is and who is not human. In the past, the question has been asked about animals, robots and other forms of machine intelligence and extraterrestrial. Ishiguro is now asking it about clones.

Whatever the moral to be drawn, Ishiguro has written a poignant story as the clones struggle with who they are and what they are, whether they are allowed to love and live. They never question their purpose nor “completion” but they do try to understand what brought them to where they are and the answer they finally get is not particularly satisfactory either to them or to us. The story is seen through the eyes of Kathy. Unlike the others she is and remains (at least by the end of the book) a carer, i.e. someone who looks after the donors, after they have donated. As a result she is able to observe them and their interactions. As with “real” humans, she shows emotions when her various friends “complete”. Ishiguro tells a moving and fascinating story, whose real life application may soon become more relevant than this now seems.

Publishing history

First published 2005 by Faber & Faber