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Volume 24, Number 1, Fall, 2005

Never Let Me Go

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, $24.00
Reviewed by Anders Monsen

There’s an implied sense of fatalism in Kazuo Ishiguro’s mainstream novel about clones that may infuriate libertarian readers. Never Let Me Go feels like an eloquent prose poem, and evokes a continual mood of memory and loss. In the end it’s this mood that hits the reader hardest, not any moral lesson or commentary about the fate of human clones.

Early reviews of the novel implied a twist or surprise contained in the novel that reviewers were hard pressed to reveal, yet forced to do so in order to comment about the novel. Told as a memoir by Kathy H, now a woman in her early thirties, Never Let Me Go looks back at her life, focusing mainly on her halcyon days at boarding school and immediately thereafter. However, the apparent twist in the novel—which appears relatively soon—reveals that Kathy and her school-mates are clones.

Cloning, long a science fiction staple, has gone mainstream. Ishiguro is not concerned with the science of cloning, nor the implications on a macro scale. Rather, the clones and their “normal” minders through school appear to take for granted that clones are sub-humans who live semi-normal lives until their mid-twenties, at which point they begin a program of “donation” which inevitably results in their death after at most four donations. This normalcy, however, is a sham. Kathy’s wonderful childhood at Hailsham, a secluded school somewhere in the English countryside, is viewed by other clones as unique place, an experiment disbanded some time during Kathy’s adulthood. We learn that most other clones grow up in gray buildings, like government housing projects. Clones in this world serve only one purpose: to supply organs to non-cloned humans.

Life at Hailsham for Kathy and her friends unfolds almost lazily. Gradually we discover what they already have learned early on in their lives. While the reader might be horrified, rarely do we see this emotion in the characters. They live almost normal young lives, discover friendships and hobbies, sex and betrayals, and leave school for the real world as if their futures stand wide open. Interestingly, the clones are sent out in small clusters at first, living on remote farms or city based communes, but with free rein to go anywhere. Later, Kathy will drive all over England, in her work as a “carer,” seeing other clones through their donations; eventually, inevitably, she too will die after completing her donations.

The simple acceptance of this fate renders this an ambivalent novel, (Where are the clone resisters? Quickly eliminated?). Still, this novel shows that humans far too easily dismiss the rights of others, and enforce such actions in the name of the greater good through the state. Whether or not this laconic attitude toward clones is intended to raise hackles in Ishiguro’s readers, we never learn from the book. Perhaps we bring our own reactions to the table, and I hope mine are not unique.

The setting and time (England, 1970s and 1990s) conveys a common history with our own, and functions as an alternate history. Perhaps in a few years cloning will be a reality. The primary reason mentioned for cloning today is health—replacing sick cells with cloned healthy ones. How long before the state intervenes to set the rules?

A superbly literate novel in terms of writing, Never Let Me Go left a deep impression on me. Tread lightly if you pick up this book, which certainly deserves a wide audience, but beware, for in the end, this novel may rip your heart out.

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