Never Let Me Go is an astonishing novel that uses the language of privilege to talk about monstrosity. Ishiguro, who also wrote The Remains of the Day, is an absolute master of writing in first person. He uses it here to guide and limit and control what we learn when, using not so much an unreliable narrator as an unquestioning one. He uses the very form of the narrative expectations, to set you up to expect a certain kind of thing and then dynamites them. It’s a very uncomfortable reading experience, but it’s an unforgettable one.
This is part of the recent wave of mainstream respected literary writers writing science fiction. Unlike earlier attempts by Lessing, Piercy and others, books like Never Let Me Go and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union know how to manipulate the technical toolkit you need to write SF. Far from being overexplained, Never Let Me Go builds up its world at precisely the right pace. It could have done with a little more attention to the scientific details, but so could a lot of books written by genre writers.
I think it may be best approached without knowing anything about it other than it’s science fiction and brilliant, but I’m going to go on to discuss it with some mild spoilers.
It’s the first person story of Kathy and her relationships with Tommy and Ruth from the time they were in school until their deaths. It is told at a specific present date (England, 1990s, as it says) but the narrative jumps about between times, mainly but not always in order, in a way reminiscent of many other novels of life looked back at. I could compare this to Signs of Life or Brideshead Revisited or Tea at Gunters. It’s like that. And at the same time, it’s much bigger inside than it looks from outside, and it fits much better with Mirror Dance and Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. Kathy thinks she’s telling the story of how fortunate and privileged she was and of her relationships, but she’s really telling the story of an alternate world where clones are living their short lives to help other people live longer ones. Her friends “complete” their “donations” and die at twenty three and twenty-eight, and Kathy accepts this even as she, at thirty, prepares to begin her own. The privilege is anything but, and the most chilling thing of all is how completely and utterly Kathy accepts her lot.
This is a book that holds up as well on the third reading as it did on the first, where I stayed up half the night to finish it. Kathy’s voice, the world, the details—a pencil case or a cassette tape is a treasure to these privileged children, Kathy thinks she’s so lucky, she has a bedsit, and the work she does caring and advocating for the donors before she begins her own donations is actually useful. Yet she knows, “knows and does not know” as she says, that normal people can work in offices or as postmen, and she will be dead before she’s thirty-five, so that those “normal people” can have their cancer cured. And the normal people accept it. The most enlightened ones we see think that the lives of the clones shouldn’t be as horrible as they possibly can be, that they should be like Kathy’s lucky life.
If there’s an opposite of “fantasy of political agency” it’s “fantasy of complete powerlessness,” and this is it. In a conventional story about clones and their horrible lives, you’d have clones trying to escape or organizing a revolt. They would at very least recognise how awful it is. It’s Kathy’s cheerful acceptance of everything that makes this so brilliant and unbearable. There’s a rumour that people who are truly in love can get a deferrment for a few years, to be together. It isn’t true, and when they discover it isn’t true they accept it pretty much without protest. Tommy’s personally angry, he isn’t politically angry. And they only imagined being able to defer, not to escape. That was the most they could hope for.
Some critics have suggested it’s implausible that a whole class of people could be created to donate and die and yet been permitted to drive around from centre to centre and go into shops and service stations. I have no problem with it. The worst tortures are the ones you do to yourself. They are a class, they know their place.
Never Let Me Go is an intensely British book, as is The Remains of the Day. Ishiguro was born in Japan and emigrated to Britain as a child and grew up there. I think these are books that could only be written by someone utterly steeped in a culture who has nevertheless always been something of an outsider in it. The donors in Never Let Me Go grumble and accept and go on in a scarily recognisable way. I was once in the Lake District with a group of friends. We came to a hotel advertising “afternoon teas.” It was afternoon and we were tired and wanted tea—but my friends, of working class origin, all felt that going into the hotel wouldn’t be appropriate, that it wasn’t for them. I dragged them in and as we sat there (drinking better tea for less money and in much nicer chairs than we’d have had if we’d walked another mile into the village) I realised that they were all acting as if they’d got away with something, and that they weren’t comfortable. This entirely trivial incident sticks with me because it’s the way the British class system works—it’s not got much to do with money, nothing stops people from going where they don’t belong except their sense that it isn’t where they belong. This is the inexorable pressure that keeps Ishiguro’s clones where they belong, and it’s a lot scarier than barbed wire and dogs.