"I was thinking about the rubbish, the flapping plastic in the branches, the shore-line of odd stuff caught along the fencing, and I half-closed my eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up, and I was now standing here in front of it . . ."
This powerful image appears on the last page of Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, Never Let Me Go. Kath, a woman in her early thirties in the late 1990s, is alone and silently weeping beside a barbed wire fence at the edge of a field in Norfolk. She has recently lost her lover, Tommy, an old school friend. Earlier, she lost Ruth, another friend from school. Tommy and Ruth had slow, stoical deaths, and Kath knows she will follow them soon. Inescapable death, loss, the destruction or dissipation of what once was valued, love and life reduced over time to detritus cast on the wind: these are the grand mortal subjects Ishiguro addresses.
His approach is brilliantly oblique. At first, Kath seems familiar: another of Ishiguro’s unreliable narrators. Her only female predecessor is the Japanese widow Etsuko in his first novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982); but male narrators subtly undermine their own partial perspectives in each of the subsequent novels: An Artist of the Floating World (1986), The Remains of the Day (1989), The Unconsoled (1995) and When We Were Orphans (2000). "This was all a long time ago so I might have some of it wrong", Kath disclaims at the start of Chapter Two. She proceeds to tell the story of her childhood friendship with Tommy and Ruth. She evokes their 1970s boarding school, Hailsham — an experimental institution, keen on creativity and artistic achievement — idyllically situated in rural England. She recalls adolescence and the growth of childish attachment into overtly sexual sentiment. In particular, she traces the development of a special sympathy between herself and Tommy.
Despite this special sympathy, it is Ruth, not Kath, who becomes Tommy’s girlfriend at school, and afterwards when they all live together in the Cottages, which resemble universal student digs — damp, cold and shabbily furnished. It is only later in life that Kath and Tommy become lovers; by the time they do, many of the dreams and illusions nurtured in childhood have been lost, and the opportunity to realize their love is greatly diminished.
Ishiguro’s narrators are often insinuating. "This was just over a month ago, when as you will recall, the days were still sunny, though the leaves were already falling", explains the ageing painter in An Artist of the Floating World. The reader, of course, recalls no such thing, but is drawn more deeply into the novel. In Never Let Me Go, Kath makes similar remarks. "I don’t know how it was where you were", she says, before elaborating further on Hailsham. The details she provides are curiously abstract — rarely visual or sensual — and the effect is to encourage us to access our own intimate memories of growing up at school: the teachers, rules, crushes and peers. Kath’s memory of the secret guard of girls pledged to protect a certain Miss Geraldine from a vague but terrible kidnap plot, for example, will resonate with many:
"I was never sure if Ruth had actually invented the secret guard herself, but there was no doubt she was the leader . . . . We believed Miss Geraldine was the best guardian in Hailsham, and we worked on presents to give her — a large sheet with pressed flowers glued over it comes to mind. But our reason for existing, of course, was to protect her."
Counterposing insinuating and disconcerting narrative effects is a technique Ishiguro has used in the past and expertly perfected. For all their generic familiarity, Kath’s school memories include some very strange details. Twelve pages into the novel comes her easily overlooked comment: "I don’t know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham we had to have some form of medical almost every week". Why? Later Kath remembers a responsible teacher (or guardian) cautioning her charges against smoking: "It’s not good that I smoked. It wasn’t good for me so I stopped it. But what you must understand is that for you, all of you, it’s much, much worse to smoke than it ever was for me". Again, why?
The answers to these small, troubling questions are provided in the sports pavilion one day. Aged fifteen and in their last year at school, Kath and her friends have begun speculating excitedly about their futures and careers. Most of them have recently discovered sex. Yet they are still children, interested in things like "an especially disgusting way of blowing your nose for when you really wanted to put a boy off". Overhearing this poignant teenage medley of optimism, innocence and ambition, one of the guardians suddenly silences her class; serious and distressed she tells them:
"None of you will go to America, none of you will be film stars. And none of you will be working in supermarkets as I heard some of you planning the other day. Your lives are set out for you. You’ll become adults, then before you’re old, before you’re even middle-aged, you’ll start to donate your vital organs. That’s what each of you was created to do . . . . You were brought into this world for a purpose, and your futures, all of them, have been decided."
Hailsham is a school for human clones. It is experimental in attempting to prove to the wider world that clones are more than the sum of their bodily parts, are creative and artistic in childhood like normal human beings, and possess whatever it is that is meant, loosely, figuratively, or spiritually, by the word "soul". Never Let Me Go takes the subject of mortality to a vivid extreme. "If you’re to have decent lives, you have to know who you are and what lies ahead of you", the children at Hailsham are told. Yet after the terrible truth has been revealed, they comprehend it only abstractly and distantly: just as ordinary, young, healthy people comprehend death — something inevitable, but still unthinkable. If Kath were a woman in her eighties, crying alone at the end of the novel because her two closest friends from school had recently died, her story would be touching but reassuringly banal. In making Kath and her friends clones, compressing the time-frame of their lives and hideously constraining their chances of happiness, Ishiguro has found an ingenious way to evade banality and bring the reader to a raw confrontation with death — loss — and the unendurable fragility of everything we love.
The beauty in this novel must be carefully distinguished from its power to distress. Ultimately, there is a connection: the depth and quality of the relationships between Kath, Tommy and Ruth certainly accentuate the cruelty of their deaths. From under the shadow of their fate, Ishiguro draws warmly compelling vignettes of love and friendship that cumulatively establish an urgent and engrossing narrative pace. During their time at the Cottages — a transitional period between leaving school and starting work as professional carers for clones already donating their organs — Kath remembers Tommy discovering her with a stash of pornographic magazines.
"I moved through the pages quickly, not wanting to be distracted by any buzz of sex coming off those pages. In fact, I hardly saw the contorted bodies, because I was focusing on the faces. Even in the little adverts for videos or whatever tucked away to the side, I checked each model’s face before moving on."
When Tommy sees this he is perplexed:
"Are you looking for something, Kath?"
"What do you mean? I’m just looking at dirty pictures."
"Just for kicks?" "I suppose you could say that." I put down one mag and started on the next one.
"Kath, you don’t . . . . Well, if it’s for kicks, you don’t do it like that. You’ve got to look at the pictures much more carefully. It doesn’t really work if you go that fast."
"How do you know what works for girls? Or maybe you’ve looked these over with Ruth. Sorry, not thinking."
"Kath, what are you looking for?"
Soon Kath storms off, but afterwards reflects, "I’d felt comforted, protected almost". There is great tenderness and humour implicit in this scene. Here are a man and a woman who have loved each other since childhood, but not yet had sex together. In response to pornography, she is determinedly focusing on human faces, and he is trying to explain gently a more conventional approach. In this instance, as in many others, the love between Kath and Tommy transcends their cross purposes.
In fact, Kath is searching for the original version of herself: the human model from which her own genetic structure was borrowed. She suspects that she and her friends were copied from trash: "junkies, prostitutes, winos, tramps". She wants to protect Tommy from this idea because she loves him. He, in a different way, wants to protect her too.
Never Let Me Go is a novel that celebrates the loving impulse to protect. It projects this noble emotion onto a dystopian vision of the brave new world that medical science might inaugurate. The clones have been created because of the human desire to postpone death indefinitely by finding protection in everlasting biological health. Far from deconstructing this desire, the lives of the clones further affirm it: they too want passionately to go on living and protecting the things they dearly love. At school Kath had a tape of a song with the lyrics: "Baby, baby, never let me go". Even though she understood from an early age that she and her friends could never reproduce, she used to dance round the dormitory clutching a pillow to herself and imagining that this song was about a woman who thought she would never have a baby, but then at last did. Kath knows the song is really about something else, but that does not matter to her. This is the closest she will ever come to experiencing maternal love.
There is an important similarity between Ishiguro’s new novel and his first. Hailsham is a special sheltered environment for vulnerable children who stand no chance of happiness in later life, and there is some disagreement between the teacher guardians about how far it is right or helpful to protect the children from the harsh reality of the adult lives ahead of them. Remembering this when they have at last become lovers after Ruth’s death, Kath and Tommy remain unsure: would it have been useful, or even possible, for them to understand earlier the shape of their distressing future? The problem of protecting children is also prominent in A Pale View of Hills. Remembering her early married life in Nagasaki in the aftermath of the atomic bomb, the widow Etsuko recalls a strange little girl called Mariko, playing alone on the scrubland, absconding from school and reacting violently to her mother’s new American lover. Mariko, unlike the children at Hailsham, is helplessly exposed to an adult world she cannot cope with. Her disturbance dates from something she saw at the age of five in Tokyo during the war: a very thin woman drowning her baby in the river. Her own mother knows this memory haunts Mariko, but still she chooses to drown the child’s pet kittens in a desperate scene at the end of the novel: "Aren’t you old enough yet to see there are other things besides these filthy little animals? You’ll just have to grow up a little. You simply can’t have these sentimental attachments forever . . . . Don’t you understand that, child? Don’t you understand?". Twenty-three years after this searing portrait of a mother so brutalized by war that she no longer feels the urge to protect her child, Ishiguro has written a heart-rending story about the desire to hold on to sentimental attachments for ever. In Never Let Me Go he shows that this desire is no less profound for being essentially childish. It is as though, after all these years, the plight of that poor little girl who watched silently as her mother drowned her kittens, has been redressed. Mariko was denied the protection for her childish sentimental attachments that Kath and her friends find at Hailsham, and carry with them into the brutal world beyond. For all the shattering sadness in her later life, Kath finally comes to understand the value of what she was given at school when, in her capacity as a carer, she encounters a fellow clone close to death:
"What he wanted was not just to hear about Hailsham, but to remember Hailsham, just like it had been his own childhood. He knew he was close to completing and so that’s what he was doing: getting me to describe things to him, so they’d really sink in, so that maybe during those sleepless nights, with the drugs and the pain and the exhaustion, the line would blur between what were my memories and what were his. That was when I first understood, really understood, just how lucky we’d been — Tommy, Ruth, me, all the rest of us."
Of all the things that can be lost or stolen, childhood is the most precious. Ishiguro has long been preoccupied by this idea, and has painstakingly developed it throughout his oeuvre. From this perspective, his new novel can be understood as more beautiful and celebratory than harrowing or upsetting. When Kath stands alone on the last page, looking at all the rubbish that has caught on the barbed wire fence and in the branches of the trees, and imagines it to be "the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up", she realizes that in itself her childhood was happy — odd, certainly — but undeniably happy. It turns out to be the root of the strength and stoicism that enable her to complete and control her fantasy in that field in Norfolk at the novel’s close:
"and if I waited long enough, a tiny figure would appear on the horizon across the field, and gradually get larger until I’d see it was Tommy, and he’d wave, maybe even call. The fantasy never got beyond that — I didn’t let it — and though the tears rolled down my face, I wasn’t sobbing or out of control. I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be."