Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go
I see that Elizabeth has written a long and I'm sure thoughtful post, and I started to read it but after a sentence or two decided I should post my own thoughts first, and then read hers afterward. I look forward to reading it.
This novel touched me deeply, and I can't stop thinking about it or telling people about it. My favorite books are those about people, especially those I feel I could (or do) know. Characters in a novel often teach me something about myself or the world, or perhaps just give voice to something that I couldn't previously articulate.
Despite the fantastical plot line constructed by Ishiguro, I felt this novel was in some ways "just" a beautifully simple story about three friends growing up together, sharing triumphs and defeats and typical adolescent drama as they fought to do what so many of us do: to find a place in the world, in society---in this case, of course, in a society that had already determined their destiny for them. The horror of this practice of cloning for the purpose of harvesting organs is not to be minimized, but I felt that Ishiguro crafted the idea as a way to deliver his story, without it becoming the main focus or point. The clever device actually manages to accomplish two things that seem diametrically opposed: it offers a concept that is impressively original (although maybe not quite so shocking, farfetched, or futuristic-sounding as it once might have been, given what goes on in the world today), but at the same time is in some ways hauntingly familiar. And by that I mean that whenever there exists in society a sub-group that is ostracized or segregated or otherwise excluded from the main group, for whatever reason, we can look into our own histories (national, personal, etc.) and find similiar examples.
By having Kathy's current role as a carer as frame to the flashbacks of her time at Hailsham, the reader is initially completely unaware of the incredible revelation that is to come. Her role as a carer is not fully explained at first, and sounds similar to that of a hospice worker. Her accounts of Hailsham make it sound like a typical boarding school, and it is only with early hints from guardians who worry about the students not being taught enough, as Tommy says, "about us. What's going to happen to us one day. Donations and all that" (29) that we start to get clues. These mysterious references are sprinkled among depictions of seemingly normal everyday life at the school: students taking classes, playing together, creating friendships, sharing experiences. It is this normalcy, this human angle that any reader can relate to, even after the frightful truth is discovered, that makes the novel so poignant. Death is inevitable for all of us, even though it's going to come earlier for these students, and Ishiguro seems to say that what we do with the time we have when we're here, how we live and love and learn, is what counts.
The school strikes me as a cocoon, protecting these students, sheltering them from the outside world at the same time it essentially bars them from it, giving them a safe environment among those like themselves. The guardians and educators have created a place that encourages learning and creativity, and that readily shares with the students honest and beautiful life lessons (such as Miss Emily's teachings about sex, which, in addition to containing extremely frank explanations of the mechanics of it, fosters the notion of love, and of a wonderful physical intimacy shared between two people in love).
What then, of the meeting Kathy and Tommy have years later with Madame and Miss Emily? What can we say about Madame's comment: "Poor creatures. What did we do to you? With all our schemes and plans?" (254) and of Miss Emily's: "Hailsham was considered a shining beacon, an example of how we might move to a more humane and better way of doing things" (258), and "Whatever else, we at least saw to it that all of you in our care, you grew up in wonderful surroundings" (261). Which statement more accurately reflects your feelings about Hailsham? Were these students raised in a bubble, a safe haven far from the harsh realities of their futures (though they knew of it, it seemed something they did not discuss often, and was in fact a subject they avoided in front of the guardians because they didn't want to make their guardians uncomfortable!), granted humanity from nurturing caretakers who felt they should not be denied a life, only to have it stripped from them in hospitals years later? Is it true that their lives were worth more, were more meaningful, because of what they had while they were here, despite the inevitable carer and donor years that would follow?
Here's a big question I have: Why do the students not rebel against their lot in life? Even Ruth, the strong and bold one, who regrets that she will never be able to work in what she envisions as a dream job in an office, does not really question why that dream is not an option to her, does not question why she is doomed to give her life at a young age. Why do they just accept that this is what they were created for, why do they not demand that they are worthy of living a full and free life, as the "normals" do? And if education is so important, if the Hailsham staff is so intent on making their lives meaningful while they're able to enjoy it, on cultivating knowledge and creativity, why has their education not led them to think critically of their situation and to maybe then challenge it?