“My name is Kathy H.” The opening sentence of Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, Never Let Me Go, sets the tone and foreshadows the subject matter of this flawed but consistently unsettling work. On one hand, the narrator’s voice is conversational, open to chatty engagement with the reader. Yet there is something sinister in that truncated surname, bringing to mind the travails of Kafka’s Joseph K. The reference to Kafka is not that far off the mark. In his previous work, most notably in 1995’s The Unconsoled, Ishiguro adopted what might be seen as Kafka’s brand of detached horrification. If, for example, we think of that sliver of a masterpiece, In the Penal Colony, in which an administrator proudly explains the workings of an elaborate torture device, the disturbance the story causes in the reader can be traced less to the explication of how the human body is flayed by the machine and more to the fact that the commandant fails to see anything appalling in the situation.
A similar indifference to, or failure to recognize, something fundamentally wrong underpins Kathy H.’s story. On the surface, she is looking back from the present day (the late 1990s we are told) to the friendships and rituals that loomed large when she was attending Hailsham, a mixed boarding school located somewhere in rural England. Yet interspersed with her 1970s memories of lights-out confabs with the other girls, fancy pencil cases, falling outs with her best friend, and a schwärmerei for a certain Miss Geraldine, there is a steady drip of dread. The word “donations” keeps cropping up. Rigorous health checks are carried out every week. Smoking is taboo to the extent that even photographs showing people with cigarettes are cut out of books. And the teachers are not just teachers, they are “guardians.” It’s an apt title as the pupils at Hailsham don’t seem to have any parents. In fact, as it gradually dawns on the reader, for Kathy, Ruth, Tommy and the rest of the children, Hailsham is their world.
Ishiguro might be said to tease us excessively as he cautiously peels away the layers of pretence that swaddle the darkness at the heart of Hailsham. Kathy H.’s story is punctuated—some might say that her story is mostly punctuation—on almost every page by hesitations, recaps, and cunctatory introductions. For example, a passage like this has a very low information-to-words ratio:
“It’s even possible I began to realize, right back then, the nature of her worries and frustrations. But that’s probably going too far; chances are, at the time, I noticed all these things without knowing what on earth to make of them. And if these incidents now seem full of significance and all of a piece, it’s probably because I’m looking at them in the light of what came later[…]”
Some critics have accused Ishiguro of padding, stretching a conventional sci-fi conceit to novel length. Yet the experience of reading it conveys something deeper. It’s as though Kathy H.’s stumbling narrative reflects how she has reached an unwilling (semi-) awareness of a system, and a perverse system of values, she’s previously taken for granted. Like someone who’s grown up an abattoir, she is not naturally attuned to the plaintive cries of the creatures about to be killed. In this case, though, the observer and victim are one and the same: Hailsham, for all its pretensions to public school decorum, is actually a kind of antechamber to the slaughterhouse. The place truly is a sham.
Yet Kathy and her friends seemingly accept their fate with docility of cattle. I’m sure other readers will be exasperated with this apparent implausibility. Why don’t they revolt, escape, or even kill those responsible? On one level, at least, Ishiguro is adhering to realism. To bring in a subject that hovers at the edge of this work, the Holocaust, is to be reminded of the fathomless question of why so many got on the trains with such meek obedience. Moreover, the passivity of Ishiguro’s characters is also of a part with the uncanny Kafkaesque world he has created. It is a world in which hospitals that murder clones are as much a part of the landscape as department stores and motorway service stations. Their existence is simply a given.
It is only at the end of the book that this hermetically sealed world is ruptured—by giving us an explanation for Hailsham, and the system it was a part of, the author paradoxically makes both less plausible.
But as Kathy comes to terms with the sickening implications of the role she and her friends were literally born to perform, wider, even existential questions might bubble up into the reader’s consciousness. Hailsham groomed these children to become bright, well-educated adults. It gave them time to form friendships, even to fall in love with each other. What was the point of it all, asks Kathy, given their ultimate destiny? By giving us a carefully rendered account of lives whose main purpose is to end—in the jargon of the book to die is to have “completed”—Ishiguro makes us question whether it is ever futile to be committed to the messy business of living, even if extinction wipes the slate clean.