I saw a St Andrew’s Junior College student reading it today. I knew she was from SAJC because of her uniform and because the edge of the pages of the book was stamped with the words “St Andrew’s Junior College Library”. And I knew it was Never Let Me Go because I recognised part of the text on the page the student happened to be reading.
Never Let Me Go is narrated by Kathy H, and her last name is a letter because clones have only letters for last names. The narration follows her journey from Hailsham School, a sheltered place where clones are raised like normal children and urged to creative pursuits to prove they have souls by believers of clone rights, through her travails with her closest friends Ruth and Tommy, to the denouement: clones like her exist to donate, and generally, after their fourth donation, a much-respected feat, they complete.
Never Let Me Go is brilliantly conceived. If Kathy H were not a clone, this may have merely been a stylishly executed memoir of teenage angst, loss of innocence, unfulfilled love and resignation to fate. But Kathy and Ruth and Tommy are clones, meant to donate and to complete, usually in their early or middle thirties, and Ishiguro creates a mythology for them that is charged with a sense of transience and all the familiar human foibles. We can identify with Ruth’s obsession with finding her possible, the original from which she was copied, to see what she was meant to do in her life; with Kathy’s leafing page by page through a porn magazine, trying to find her own face, seeking an explanation for her sexual urges; with Tommy’s being mocked for his lack of creative talent and then, having come across an urban legend about how creative, soulful, deserving clones may get an extra three years before starting to donate, the belated and desperate flowering of his artistry.
I found the last roughly 200 words of the book heartrending, and I’ll provide a bit of background before I reproduce the book’s last two paragraphs, with those 200 words.
Tommy is the love of Kathy’s life. And Norfolk is a special place in their world. Because the maps at Hailsham School did not have details of Norfolk for some reason, the teachers made a joke out of it – “don’t get lost and end up in Norfolk” – and it came to be imagined by the students as a place where all their lost things went. After they left Hailsham, and Kathy lost a beloved cassette tape, Kathy and Tommy came to Norfolk, and spent an entire afternoon rummaging through second-hand stores, and eventually amazingly found the same cassette tape.
The only indulgent thing I did, just once, was a couple of weeks after I heard Tommy had completed, when I drove up to Norfolk, even though I had no real need to. I wasn’t after anything in particular and I didn’t go up as far as the coast. Maybe I just felt like looking at all those flat fields of nothing and the huge grey skies. At one stage I found myself on a road I’d never been on, and for about half an hour I didn’t know where I was and didn’t care. I went past field after flat, featureless field, with virtually no change except when occasionally a flock of birds, hearing my engine, flew up out of the furrows. Then at last I spotted a few trees in the distance, not far from the roadside, so I drove up to them, stopped and got out.
I found I was standing before acres of ploughed earth. There was a fence keeping me from stepping into the field, with two lines of barbed wire, and I could see how this fence and the cluster of three or four trees above me were the only things breaking the wind for miles. All along the fence, especially along the lower line of wire, all sorts of rubbish had caught and tangled. It was like the debris you get on a seashore: the wind must have carried some of it for miles and miles before finally coming up against these trees and these two lines of wire. Up in the branches of the trees, too, I could see, flapping about, torn plastic sheeting and bits of old carrier bags. That was the only time, as I stood there, looking at that strange rubbish, feeling the wind coming across those empty fields, that I started to imagine just a little fantasy thing, because this was Norfolk after all, and it was only a couple of weeks since I’d lost him. I was thinking about the rubbish, the flapping plastic in the branches, the shore-line of odd stuff caught along the fencing, and I half-closed my eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up, and I was now standing here in front of it, and if I waited long enough, a tiny figure would appear on the horizon across the field, and gradually get larger until I’d see it was Tommy, and he’d wave, maybe even call. The fantasy never got beyond that – I didn’t let it – and though the tears rolled down my face, I wasn’t sobbing or out of control. I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be.