Kazuo Ishiguro’s second novel The Remains of the Day is a masterpiece of fiction. Subtlety its middle name, the book presents the quiet limitations we impose on ourselves (versus those imposed from external sources) in poignant, elegant fashion that speaks to the true nature of humanity. The story of a butler so focused on his sense of duty that he denies himself the basic aspects of existence, it’s one of the main reasons Ishiguro recently won the Nobel for literature. Equally subtle but less believable in execution, Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go is another strong reason.
Plot-wise, Never Let Me Go is straight-forward: three young people grow up in what is essentially an orphanage, coming of age with the idea they are clones who will someday be organ donors for ordinary people. The real meat of the novel is found, however, in the interaction of the three and the perspectives of the world as they evolve.
Like The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go is highly introspective, integrating the tiny but telling details of quotidian life and relationships. The story is told through the eyes of Cathy, an intelligent, sensitive young woman trying to fit in yet retain her identity among the other young people at their boarding home. Having a troubled relationship with a fellow student Ruth, the two, through a series of events and compromises, form a strong but strange friendship. The third primary character is an emotionally volatile young man named Tom who is initially bullied by the other boys, but after realizing certain things, comes into his own and is able to form stronger relationships with others. The art the young people produce of odd importance to their overseers, Ishiguro slowly unveils the underlying logic to their situation in the boarding home, all the while the young attempt to reconcile their state state as clones with the wider world beyond and themselves.
But for as vulnerable and elegantly written Never Let Me Go represents humanity (that is the reason to read the novel), it never convinced me of its premise, not even close. The main characters all know their situation: clones who will one day donate their organs so that normal humans can continue to live, death the natural result of the donation. Yet, none of them had anything close to a crisis of mortality. None freaked out, flew off the handle, or tried to escape their imminent death. Like lambs to the slaughter, each accepted their fate and did what needed to be done. This struck me as anti-human—not in the sense that they internalized their purpose (for certain that is one natural reaction), rather in that none, zero, zilch rebelled. After all, if there is any basic instinct to humanity, it is to survive, yet the characters show no interest when pressed. This is not to say Never Let Me Go should have been a classic hero’s narrative wherein the victimized clone rises to freedom by defeating their oppressors, rather that Ishiguro’s characters never seemed to even entertain thoughts of somehow exiting their undesirable situation and continue living. This is made all the more strange by the fact each is given the freedom to live a relatively normal life; they could have escaped their inevitable fate at any time. But none did, as if duty were somehow stronger than survival in all cases.
The disparity between humanity in the book and humanity in the real world should not deter the reader, however. I am glad I read Never Let Me Go. It possesses the same sensitivity and subtle portrayal of existence as The Remains of the Day; Cathy, Ruth, and Tom are characters straight from real life that deal with their situation and changing circumstances in relatable fashion. Except, of course, clinging to the vestiges of mortality. Never Let Me Go wanted to be a fully human and humane novel, but given this disparity I couldn’t buy fully into it. Great novel with a glaring omission…