Where to begin with Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go? Is this 2005 book to be considered a literary coming-of-age novel or one that falls within the confines of genre fiction? And if we settle on genre fiction as its most suitable home, exactly which genre are we going to tag it with: science fiction, dystopian science fiction, horror? Whatever we end up calling it, Never Let Me Go most certainly was a huge success for its author, even to being shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize, the 2006 Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award. Then in 2010 it was turned into a major motion picture with particular appeal, I suppose, to the young adult audience.
The book centers around three main characters that have literally known one another for their entire lives: Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth. As the story begins, Kathy, the narrator, is telling about her role as carer to several donors who are at various stages in the process of making the four donations they expect to make during their lifetimes. During this early part of her story, Kathy expands neither on her duties as carer nor on the nature of the donations being made by those for whom she looks after.
Kathy has been a carer for almost twelve years now, an extraordinarily long time for someone in that role, and she is finally becoming so bored with the job that she looks forward to being relieved of it when she completes her twelfth year as a carer. She is so good at what she does, that authorities have taken to allowing Kathy to choose which donors she wants to work with, a privilege that marks her as special to everyone who hears of it. While this has given Kathy some relief from the boredom she must deal with, it also results in her spending all her free time speculating about what happened at Hailsham, the boarding school she, Tommy, and Ruth grew up in.
Hailsham, you see, is no ordinary boarding school. The instructors there are known as guardians rather than as teachers, and in addition to the regular classes, there is a very strong emphasis on art and keeping oneself healthy at all times. The students, who all leave Hailsham during the year they turn sixteen, come to know each other extremely well over the years as they learn bit-by-bit what they are and what is expected of them. Surprisingly, despite what they learn about their limited futures, the guardians do such a thorough job of acclimation to the concept that every single student is ready and willing to play his/her assigned role.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s approach to Never Let Me Go is not one in which he explores the ethics of human cloning or the morality of a society that would take this approach to extend the life expectancies of those who can afford to purchase replacement organs for themselves. Rather, the author is more interested in the clones themselves and how easily they can be convinced to accept their fates. His focus is on the humanness of Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth, and by having his readers watch these young people achieve maturity, he hammers that point home. Never Let Me Go leaves its readers with a lot to contemplate – especially if they are willing to fill in a few of the blanks themselves.