Never Let Memory Go: A Book Review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

Even the best of readers might be put off by its plodding style—after all, Never Let Me Go does not seem to get off the ground as “normal” plots go. All we have is the voice of Kathy H., a sensitive narrator who addresses putative readers as her familiars, who takes us through the labyrinthine pathways of recollected memory. And do not expect to know substantial things about her even halfway through the book—questions of who she is, where she’s from, whose children they were, were deftly sidestepped to create an aura of mystery–information doled out is on a “need know” basis. Through the filter of Kathy H.’s memory (and after we struggle to make sense of seemingly trivial concerns), we learn that she, along with her best friends Ruth and Tommy, went to Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school in England that, apart from art and sports classes, offers not much by way of formal education. (“Sham” or fakery could rain like “hail”?) Afterwards, in their late adolescence, they were shunted off to a farm called the Cottages, a sort of a halfway house before they begin their lifelong “profession” of being carers, donors, or both.

Set in the late 1990’s (during which time biotechnology and applications promise a medical utopia), the narrative uses “donation”, “carer”, “deferral”, “possibles” and “complete” nonchalantly, Ishiguro expecting the readers to know the meaning, quite rightly, of these plain words, the shock of recognition to what they actually refer dawning on the readers near book’s end. Other familiar words, like “umbrella”, “find in Norfolk”, “snogging”, even, in fact, the word “students”,  take on additional meanings with the progress of the story. Meaningful in its absence is the word clones mentioned only in the latter part, but which, as it turns out, is all the novel’s main characters. Some parts jump out:

But she just carried on: “We all know it. We’re modelled from trash. Junkies, prostitutes, winos, tramps. Convicts, maybe, just so long as they aren’t psychos. That’s what we come from. We all know it, so why don’t we say it? A woman like that? Come on … Do you think she’d have talked to us like that if she’d known what we really were? What do you think she’d have said if we’d asked her? `Excuse me, but do you think your friend was ever a clone model?’…. (166; italics in the original)  

and,

Why did we take your artwork? Why did we do that?You said an interesting thing earlier, Tommy. When you were discussing this with Marie-Claude. You said it was because your art would reveal what you were like. What you were like inside. That’s what you said, wasn’t it? Well, you weren’t far wrong about that. We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all.” (260; italics in the original)

and readers recognize that this is not a re-telling of another ordinary life. 
Boldly carrying history forward by creating a world where clones are a commonplace, and the harvesting of organs in a series of donations (before a donor “completes” or dies) is marginally treated like it is the most normal thing, the story is a cautionary tale for these modern times; and themes of isolation, grief, and loss of innocence remain valid aspects of our humanity and therefore continue to move, because even in such a highly functional and idealized world, both humans and clones are still subject to the vagaries of human emotions, and the age-old hesitancies of humans “playing God” (as when Hailsham yielded to the pressure of key people in the government resulting in its closing) continue to be debated.
At its heart, the novel is not about the brave new world of cloning and the potential mayhem to humanity such development brings. What it is is a tragic love story of Tommy and Kathy H. whose desire for one another is only mitigated by a certain future they are unable to (or would not) avoid. The inexorability of their destiny which they have accepted is what makes memory, in the protagonist’s mind and heart that contains it, the only uncertain feature that compels her to continuously recreate the facts and fictions of her life. At the visceral level, knowledge of the clones’ predestined end seemed “spliced” into their genes, rendering them unable to effect change so that they get a shot at what they want. Does Kazuo Ishiguro then think that that’s what separates clones from us?
Ishiguro, whose solid reputation as an author rests on the prestige of Remains of the Day, seems not interested in exploring the ethics of cloning in Never Let Me Go but in the subject of memory. What is it about memory that continues to be an anchor of our existence? And how, in the case of Kathy H. (but not Ruth) memory is a source of comfort, as when she struggles to remember people, events, and places on the brink of eternal forgetfulness. Memory allows her to forge her identity despite the fact that, by their very nature, it may simply be impossible for clones to stand apart from their  models or “possibles”. Memory is a balm to the pain of loss.

References:

Hellerung, Søren and Cecilie Skaarup. “Delusions: Memory and Identity in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Fiction.” Retrieved 14 April 2012. http://www.spanglefish.com/Beaminster/documents/delusions%20-%20Kazuo%20Ishiguros%20Fiction.pdf.


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