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Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

An Engrossing Read and Heartfelt Novel

Kazuo Ishiguro has built his career out of books (The Remains of the Day, A Pale View of the Hills) with strange plots and equally strange characters. In the words of one critic, he has "mapped an aesthetic territory all his own," but despite his challenging novels and stylistic risks, Ishiguro has managed to win a wide readership that most novelists can only admire.

Despite Ishiguro's ability to make strange stories work, the premise of his new novel, Never Let Me Go, is enough to make even a seasoned Ishiguro admirer think twice. It is told by a 31-year old human clone who traces the lives of her and several other clones, all of whom have been created by the British government so that their organs can be harvested and used to lengthen the lives of non-clone humans. The question is: has Ishiguro gone too far? Is this strange trip into sci-fi something that even his skills cannot save?

The answer to that question can only be "no". Instead of turning his premise into a morality tale and letting it hold the plot hostage, Ishiguro uses the idea of clones to create a unique narrative voice, exploring the question of what makes us human from an innovative angle. All the while, Ishiguro keeps us intrigued both with a love triangle that emerges between his three main characters and with tantalizing unanswered questions about the clones themselves.

Never Let Me Go opens with Kathy, working as a "carer", looking back on her life. As a carer she shuttles around England as a sort of bedside nurse to "donors" who stay in special recovery centers, typically donating four organs before, in Ishiguro's euphemistic parlance, "completing". Kathy's been a carer for a while -- 12 years -- much longer than all her friends who have long since become donors and completed, and she knows that very soon she herself will become a donor.

Wistfully, Kathy begins to recount her life at Hailsham, a boarding school that educated clones until they were 16-years old, preparing them for the lives they would have to eventually lead. Part of the enjoyment of Never Let Me Go is to hear Kathy's voice. It is clear that she is intelligent, but she has been very carefully manipulated her entire life, so she speaks with a childish innocence that no normal 31-year old should have. Her lack of perspective and ignorance surrounding the unseemliness of cloning humans makes Kathy an unreliable narrator, but one whose skewed view of the world is strangely enriching.

Ishiguro evokes Hailsham as a special, lost place brimming with the memories of a happy childhood. In Kathy's words, "There have been times over the years when I've tried to leave Hailsham behind, when I've told myself I shouldn't look back so much. But then there came a point when I just stopped resisting. It had to do with this particular donor…He could hardly breathe, but he looked towards me and said: 'Hailsham. I bet that was a beautiful place.'…At first I thought this was just the drugs, but then I realized his mind was clear enough. What he wanted was not just to hear about Hailsham, but to remember Hailsham, just like it had been his own childhood."

It is at Hailsham that Kathy connects with the book's two other central characters: Tommy, a strange, bad-tempered boy who never really fits in, and Ruth, a headstrong person who eventually becomes Tommy's girlfriend and places Kathy's and Tommy's feelings for each other on hold. It's also at Hailsham that the book's main mysteries are established: Who is the shadowy Madame, and why does she take the clones' artwork for her gallery? What exactly is Hailsham and why is it that one of the children's teachers suddenly quits? Are the clones human, or not, and do they have any hope for normal lives?

As Kathy and her fellow students graduate from Hailsham, move on to the Cottages (a college-like environment), and eventually become carers and donors, Ishiguro carefully lays down the plot piece by piece. Never Let Me Go is structured as a series of remembrances, and the beauty is that Ishiguro makes it sound as though Kathy is bouncing along in a stream of consciousness, even though it is clear that he has carefully assembled and paced his novel. Kathy's authentic, unique voice never falters while Ishiguro manipulates the plot to wring both emotionality and meaning.

Perhaps the best thing about Never Let Me Go is how Ishiguro uses his clones to highlight the common bonds among all humans. Even though Ishiguro's clones are far removed from normal circumstances, they are also much like us. They wonder about where they came from and who they are, and a few of them -- once they have overcome the deceptions used to manipulate them -- understand alienation and loneliness. By writing a novel about characters at the very edges of what we would consider to be human, Ishiguro has found an insightful way to examine what unites us in our humanity. Never Let Me Go is a penetrating, heartfelt novel, an engrossing read that is masterful in its style, plotting, and artistry.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Knopf
April 2005
Hardcover/$24
ISBN: 140043395
304 pgs.