- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 16, 2005

NEVER LET ME GO

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Knopf, $24, 288 pages

While completing Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go,” it was an eerie coincidence to learn in the news of the birth of quintuplets to a surrogate mother. The novel is built around a fictive world in which bioengineering — cloning for organ donation to be precise — is both the source of its mystery and its scaffolding. The real-life surrogate birth (facilitated by fertility drugs) only heightened the book’s not-so-farfetched premise.

But to say that Mr. Ishiguro’s book is just about cloning would be like saying that Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” is about creating a monster. While science plays a prominent role in each, when compared to the human component of the stories, it seems little more than an inevitable, if not a necessary, evil.

How evil the science is, of course, depends on its application, and in Mr. Ishiguro’s imaginary world, the science is pretty evil. Even so, there is more to this engaging, chilling story than meets the eye.

Mr. Ishiguro, author of “Remains of the Day” and “When We Were Orphans” is one of literature’s most highly esteemed novelists. Like his earlier books, this one takes its time creating what seems to be an ordinary world linked to and bedeviled by a menacing, darker one. In the case of “Remains of the Day,” it was the British aristocracy’s flirtation with fascism that lurked in the background and leads the dutiful butler Stevens to his hollow fate. In “When We Were Orphans,” the setting was a precarious and dangerous Shanghai during the Sino-Japanese War that turns an ordinary family of British expats upside down.

In “Never Let Me Go,” readers meet 31-year-old Kathy who, on page one, describes herself as someone who’s “been a carer now for over eleven years.” One takes this occupation to be something akin to a nurse’s aide, and Kathy, it seems, is very good at what she does: “My donors have always tended to do much better than expected. Their recovery times have been impressive, and hardly any of them have been classified as ‘agitated,’ even before the fourth donation.”

Early on, it is not entirely clear who the donors are or what exactly they are donating, and certainly in the book’s early pages there is no indication at all what the “fourth donation” connotes. But, as with all of Mr. Ishiguro’s novels, small details are revealed slowly over time until his puzzle is complete.

There is from the start, however, something more disturbing afoot in this book than in previous ones. Whereas, “Remains of the Day” and “When We Were Orphans” each derived from actual historical events — and were scenic to boot — Kathy’s world of 1990s England is an antiseptic place, portrayed with all the cold forebodings one finds in something like science fiction, but not quite.

In the early pages of this book, as the characters are gradually introduced along with hierarchies that have names and rules that everyone seems to abide by (even as they are mystified by them), I was reminded of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” an association that lasted right up through the end of the book. This is not the easy, graceful reading found in Mr. Ishiguro’s earlier books, and one should add that the kind of imagined dystopia one finds here is not a place that everyone will visit.

But Kathy seems not to mind. Before long, she draws readers into her world, particularly the world of her childhood, which she spent at Hailsham, a private school in the English countryside. Kathy explains — make that rationalizes — how the children were sheltered there and how they were told that they were special. It soon becomes clear that while, at first, Kathy was comfortable in her idealized setting, there were many questions that troubled her and her fellow students. Over time, she will begin to piece together what was actually going on at Hailsham and how it was anything but bucolic or safe.

These recollections include memories of fellow students who became good friends, and they include memories of the adults in the group, the “guardians” who slowly are revealed to be not who they seem to be.

After they have finished school, Kathy and her friends advance to the “cottages” where they are freer to experiment sexually and pursue creative endeavors. Along the way, they listen to their Walkmans, seek out “possibles” — their biological originals — and watch TV.

But by the time the characters are in their 20s, readers are sufficiently immersed in this world where no one has last names to understand that Kathy and all her friends are clones who have been nurtured to grow only so that they may donate organs. Being a “carer” is the first step along the way to “completion,” meaning death.

The relentless march toward this ghastly end would make for unbearable reading were it not that these lives — not so different from our own — are humanized by friendships, rivalries and love. The triangle of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy and the heartbreak that comes with each learning and then knowing that they will die gives the book its depth and resonance.

The title of the book is taken from a song that Kathy listens to over and over again and once is caught dancing to by a guardian who is brought to tears. It is the guardians who are not without ambivalence toward their mission or their charges. One, Miss Emily, tries to explain to Kathy why at a certain juncture it was decided that art should be taken away from the young people.

She says, “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.’

She paused, and Tommy and I exchanged glances for the first time in ages. Then I asked:

“‘Why did you have to prove a thing like that, Miss Emily? Did someone think we didn’t have souls?’”

This is not a book for the fainthearted, but it has a stark beauty and more than a few rewards.

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