Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

‘Most of the time, people don’t want to think about it’

This is a discussion intended for people who have already read Never Let Me Go. Don’t read on if you don’t already know, and wish to remain in the dark about, what happens in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel.

Never Let Me Go is the most restrained and understated horror story imaginable. It’s as well to be clear that, the restraint and understatement notwithstanding, it is a horror story. This is made explicit, in spite of the narrator’s reluctance, in the final chapter. Tommy, the person she has been closest to since childhood, is soon to be operated on for his fourth and final ‘donation’:

‘You know why it is, Kath, why everyone worries so much about the fourth? It’s because they’re not sure they’ll really complete. If you knew for certain you’d complete, it would be easier. But they never tell us for sure.’
I’d been wondering for a while if this would come up, and I’d been thinking about how I’d respond. But when it did, I couldn’t find much to say. So I just said, ‘It’s just a lot of rubbish, Tommy. Just talk, wild talk. It’s not even worth thinking about.’
But Tommy would have known I had nothing to back up my words. He’d have known, too, he was raising questions to which even the doctors had no certain answers. You’ll have heard the same talk. How, maybe, after the fourth donation, even if you’ve technically completed, you’re still conscious in some sort of way; how then you find there are more donations, plenty of them, on the other side of that line; how there are no more recovery centres, no carers, no friends, how there’s nothing to do except watch your remaining donations until they switch you off. It’s horror movie stuff, and most of the time people don’t want to think about it. Not the whitecoats, not the carers — and usually not the donors. But now and again, a donor will bring it up, as Tommy did that evening, and I wish now we’d talked about it. (Faber & Faber, 2005; paperback edition, pp. 273–4)

Kathy, who has known Tommy since they were “students” together at Hailsham (with Ruth, who has since completed), is now Tommy’s carer. Kathy has been a carer for a relatively long time, over 11 years, so she has seen many of her contemporaries complete, while she herself has yet to make her first donation. At the beginning of the novel, she reflects on why she has been allowed to remain a carer for so long.

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 fourth donation. Okay, maybe I am boasting now. But it means a lot to me, being able to do my work well, especially that bit about my donors staying ‘calm’. (p. 3)

In other words, Kathy is effectively a collaborator. Her value to the authorities and the medical establishment (who by implication decide how long she remains a carer and when her own donations will begin) is as someone who has a talent for helping donors to recover quickly, and so reducing the time between donations, and for keeping them calm in the face of the fourth donation with a conscious vivisection to look forward to. Kathy is able to do her job so well in part because she has a capacity for self-deception, at least some of the time, about the nature of her role. Even the passage in which she acknowledges that she has ‘nothing to back up’ her reassuring words to Tommy, and that she now wishes they had talked about his fears, she can still say ‘… all in all, I was under the impression we were dealing with the fourth donation pretty well together’ (p. 274).

It’s likely that Kathy has a better idea what’s in store for Tommy than she is willing to admit. “You’ll have heard the same talk”, she tells the reader, reminding us of the similar talk that went around suggesting that Hailsham students might get a deferral if they could prove that they were genuinely in love. That rumour proved to be without foundation — might the same not be true of the speculation about the aftermath of the fourth donation? But if it is an unfounded rumour, then the doctors and whitecoats are being needlessly cruel. The fact that they are unable to say “for sure” that the donors will be dead by the time the final carveup of their remaining organs is carried out, at least indicates that they take no positive steps to bring this state about. And it’s all too easy to believe that they want to keep the donor alive for as long as possible, to minimize the risk of damage to the organs.

Also, it’s entirely credible that the medical personnel would not allow themselves to be influenced by concern for the suffering — the agony — of the donors. As Miss Emily warned Kathy and Tommy:

However uncomfortable people were about your existence, their overwhelming concern was that their own children, their spouses, their parents, their friends, did not die from cancer, motor neurone disease, heart disease. So for a long time you were kept in the shadows, and people did their best not to think about you. And if they did, they tried to convince themselves you weren’t really like us. That you were less than human, so it didn’t matter. (p. 258)

With the closure of Hailsham and the few other centres which tried, however ineffectually, to assert the humanity of the clones, the public perception of them had soon reverted to its former harshness:

… after the climate changed, we had no chance. The world didn’t want to be reminded how the donation programme really worked. They didn’t want to think about you students, or about the conditions you were brought up in. In other words, my dears, they wanted you back in the shadows. (p. 259)

While Kathy is able to shield herself from full awareness of the function she performs on behalf of the authorities and the medical establishment, Tommy is more clear-sighted, and that’s a large part of the reason why he doesn’t want her to remain as his carer as he prepares for the fourth donation. They love each other, but each has to be alone at the end.

The donors are, of course, fully human: cloned from “[j]unkies, prostitutes, winos, tramps. Convicts, maybe, just so long as they aren’t psychos. That’s what we come from” (p. 164). Not from people who can afford to say no, like the businesswoman whom Ruth briefly imagined to be a “possible”.

At Hailsham (though not in most of the centres where donors were brought up), attempts were made to educate the clones, to encourage their “creativity”, to invest their short lives with some value. They were made aware of their condition and purpose, though in such a way that they had the knowledge without being fully conscious of it: “Told but not told”:

Tommy thought it possible the guardians had, thoughout all our years at Hailsham, timed very carefully and deliberately everything they told us, so that we were always just too young to understand properly the latest piece of information. But of course we’d take it in at some level, so that before long all this stuff was there in our heads without us ever having examined it properly. (p. 81)

The education and the creativity were intended in part to persuade the world in general that the clones were not in fact “less than human”, and in part to ameliorate the brutal utilitarianism of their existence. In neither aim was the experiment markedly successful, though Miss Emily could claim with some justice that her students were, for some years, better off than their fellows.

Encouraged to develop lives containing some measure of fulfilment, in the face of a death which will come far too soon and, most likely, be accompanied by excruciating and prolonged pain … It’s easy to see the donor’s condition as a more concentrated or compressed version of the human one. They are specially brought into existence to take from other, wealthier human beings the burden of “cancer, motor neurone disease, heart disease” and other conditions that bring a painful, early end to life. In preferring not to think about the donors’ existence, we equally avoid facing the facts about our own.

Posted by Art on 16-Sep-2019.