Body and soul
In Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel about organ-donor clones, it is art that gives them a glimmer of their humanity.
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber and Faber 2005, 272pp, £16.99 (hbk)
For a novel about human clones raised to donate organs, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, is surprisingly short on science and time travel. It takes place in a parallel universe – ‘England, late 1990s’ – not a future one, and focuses mostly on the thoughts and feelings of three friends, Kathy, Tommy and Ruth. The weird, futuristic science of the novel is just a backdrop for Ishiguro’s moving meditation on art and the human soul.
Kathy H narrates the novel with an engaging, conversational style. But her optimism seems tinny from the start. She and her friends Tommy and Ruth were ‘lucky’, she says, to be students at Hailsham, an idyllic English boarding school that encouraged students to paint, draw and write poems. But soon it becomes clear that Kathy’s optimism is suspect. The special words Hailsham students use, the intense pressure to create artwork, and strange school rituals she describes suggest the school isn’t the elite boarding school it seems: students are watched over by ‘guardians’, have weekly medical exams, and receive cryptic warnings about their predetermined future.
Through the eyes of the students, in a series of page-turning revelations, the reader learns that Kathy and her friends are a part of a subculture of clones, whose organs will be harvested to prolong the life of normal humans. Kathy H’s life will be abbreviated like her name, which ends just after the H. (She has no parents to take a name from, and will have no children to pass it on to.) She will die after she’s donated her organs, one by one, before middle age.
The set course of a clone’s life is explained with new words: after school they will look after ‘donors’ as a ‘carers’, and then will become ‘donors’ themselves in one of the hospital-like ‘centers’ before they die, or ‘complete’, in clone parlance. Science fiction books often invent new words to describe new phenomena. New words also make things more palatable – like beef for cow, pork for pig. If clones ‘complete’ rather than die, it suggests their type of death is different, which means they aren’t really human. Special clone words deemphasise clones’ humanity, but they can have the opposite effect: the calculating language only makes subterfuge more obvious.
Ishiguro is a master at creating a rich world from small objects and poignant moments – a shaft of light, a polo shirt, a cassette tape. Kathy, Tommy and Ruth are so realistic that it’s easy to become charmed by the realistic minutiae of their boarding school lives, and to forget about the greater, darker scheme, just as the characters often seem to forget, too. Later, after Hailsham, it is heart breaking to watch the characters yearn for simple things – Ruth wants to work in an office, Kathy and Tommy long to spend a few more years together, in love, before the inevitable donations begin – and be denied. They learn to embrace their gruesome fate because they can’t escape it: ‘I was pretty much ready when I became a donor’, Ruth says. ‘After all, it’s what we’re supposed to be doing, isn’t it?’
Ishiguro ups the impact of the novel by ignoring the medical details (he never says which organs or when, or gives specifics about clone propagation), and focusing on art and human emotion. The creativity encouraged at Hailsham and the art the characters encounter later outside school, frees them, momentarily, from their oppressive, sub-human fate. Art and creativity can’t lengthen a clone’s truncated life – but can change their view of themselves, give them a sense of their own humanity, even if this humanity can’t be fully realised.
Through art, Kathy, Tommy and Ruth find and appreciate the parts of themselves that aren’t utilitarian or purpose-built. As they were commissioned for strictly functional reasons, what exists outside this narrow band of utility becomes especially beautiful and precious. Through art they find a lens to appreciate the world that betrayed them. Years after Hailsham, the three friends trek out to see a boat stranded in the marshes, far away from the ocean. It is a curiosity, a kind of art, beautiful with peeling blue paint. Most importantly, a boat left on dry land serves no clear function. They are in awe of it.
In another scene, Nancy H dances alone to a Judy Bridgewater song, holding a pillow she pretends is her baby. Like all clones, Nancy H can’t have babies, but the music evokes a human longing. For the clones, art creates longings it can’t satisfy, but it is still, ultimately, worth it.
And then there is the art of Ishiguro’s narrative. He takes an oblique approach that manages to communicate more clearly and subtly for its lack of directness. Like his narrators in A Pale View of Hills and The Remains of the Day, Nancy H isn’t very honest with herself. Events, filtered through Nancy H’s eyes, show how her experiences have warped and numbed her perspective. Throughout the novel, Nancy H struggles to come to terms with her own history and destiny. She can’t afford to be entirely honest with herself about her feelings, because she is powerless to change her situation, and so there is a disparity between the facts she recounts and her interpretations of them. Between the facts and the interpretations is a haunting, unmapped terrain the reader must navigate alone.
Lisa Brennan-Jobs is an American writer who lives in London, and has worked as a spiked intern.
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