As a carer, Kathy has plenty of time on her hands as she drives across the country to visit her clients. Ruth and Tommy have recently re-entered her world for the first time since they were students at the exclusive Hailsham (boarding) school: in looking back to their shared pasts, Kathy evaluates her life, past and future, and the nature of friendship and love.
It’s soon apparent that not everything is (or was) as it seems. Cast-off clothing, second hand toys – ‘out of sight, out of mind’ appears to be an appropriate motto for the school found in the deep recesses of the English countryside. Secrets – or a lack of clarity – abound.
There’s no question these children are being groomed for something – and it is not high-flying careers as politicians, diplomats or entrepreneurs more commonly associated with English private schools. It’s just they’re never told directly what the future holds for them. A hint here, a suggestion there (made more apparent in the recent film version), they’re destined for something ‘special’.
The spoiler, for anyone who knows anything about the book/film, is that they are clones and destined to be donors of organs, limbs etc for the general population. The establishment of Hailsham (and a few others) was the result of social and political pressure to create a more humane environment for the children’s upbringing.
Labelled ‘sci-fi’, Never Let Me Go is more mundane dystopian than fantastical: an allegory to life and its ephemeral nature along with ethical questions on ‘humanity’. But it is also a coming-of-age love story – a triangle between an overbearing, somewhat bossy Ruth, the quiet, contemplative Kathy and a socially awkward, unaware Tommy who is so obviously more suited to Kathy than Ruth.
It’s beautifully written – with, on my part, one major caveat. The ‘she said, he said…’ informality of Kathy’s narration occasionally undermines and grates. But her slow reveal of the horrors that await the Hailsham students is profound and deeply moving.
Never Let Me Go may not (to my mind) reach the lofty heights of Ishiguro’s masterpiece (The Remains of the Day) but it is nevertheless a startlingly original piece of literary fiction. In being shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize, it required the casting vote of the Chairman of the Panel of Judges, John Sutherland, to present the award to John Banville’s The Sea over Ishiguro.