Monday 15 April 2024

Guest review by Susan Elkin: NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro


" ... Of course, she (Kathy) is terrified but Ishiguro’s drawing of her character is a masterclass in understatement, repression and denial."

Susan Elkin
taught English in secondary schools for 36 years, latterly developing a parallel career as a writer. Since 1990 she has written over 5000 articles for newspapers and magazines, English text books, how-to books for teachers, a book about careers in theatre and latterly three volumes of memoir: Please Miss We’re Boys (2019), The Alzheimer’s Diaries (2022) and All Booked Up (2024). She lives in South London.

I read Never Let Me Go casually when it was published in 2005. Then it got taken up by several examination boards as a GCSE set text and I was commissioned by Hodder to write a study guilde – which meant a lot of very careful analytical thinking. I’ve written five of these on different titles and it’s certainly an effective way of honing very attentive reading skills – like teaching without the students.

Never Let Me Go presents a world, more or less like our own, except that there is a parallel breeding programme of clones whose organs are gradually harvested when they reach maturity. There’s a complex, albeit patchy, system for making it as humane as it can be which often, rereading again now after 11 years, reminds me of animal welfare concerns in real life: hideous things go on but meat eaters simply don’t want to think about that. In the same way, people on the periphery of Never Let Me Go need kidneys, livers and hearts for transplant but choose not to think too hard about the source.

The novel is narrated by Kathy H and although her attention to detail is punctilious, she is the most unreliable of narrators. She is coming to the end of an unusually long eleven year stint as a “carer” and looking back at Hailsham, the beloved institution, now closed, where she and her friends Ruth and Tommy were brought up. Soon she will have to start her “donations” – chilling choice of euphemism. There is nothing voluntary about this. She faces a series of four organ-harvesting operations which will end in death. Of course, she’s terrified but Ishiguro’s drawing of her character is a masterclass in understatement, repression and denial.

We never meet the organ beneficiaries or see the surgery in action. The author isn’t interested in that sort of detail. He doesn’t dwell on science and specifics either. We simply see Ruth and Tommy and others in “recovery” (another sinister euphemism) centres where there is always an officially appointed carer. Instead the novel focuses on relationships and personalities and, crucially, explores whether or not you are fully human if you are cloned and unable to reproduce. Do you have a soul because if you don’t then does that make you expendable? There’s a lot of emphasis on creative art at the enlightened Hailsham to prove that you do – but what’s the point if you’re only being bred to die?

Well, there have been other novels about organ harvesting: Spares by Michael Marshall Smith (1996), Under the Skin by Michael Faber (2000) and, in a sense, My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult, (2004) for example. So why did Ishiguro choose to visit this topic? My contention is that organ removal isn’t the main thrust of the novel. The donation programme is merely the setting.

Never Let Me Go is actually a compelling, but searingly bleak, novel about the death which awaits us all: a parable about mortality. As children “we’re told but not told” as Miss Lucy says in the novel. We know about death – vaguely. Then, as we grow up, most of us choose not to think about it much. And we bolster our denial with euphemisms.

All religions offer some sort of explanation of death in order to enable their believers to face the future without fear or despair. Unbelievers have to face knowing that their lives will “complete” (yet another Never Let Me Go euphemism) possibly after being “all hooked up” and with “drugs, pain and exhaustion”. In the novel the rumours about the possibility of deferral represent a religion of hope – which is eventually dispelled by Miss Emily. “Your life must now run the course which has been set for it” she tells Kathy and Tommy. And that, of course, is true for all of us.

Never Let Me Go, pubished by Faber, was adapted as a film in 2010 with Carey Mulligan as Kathy. Inevitably it lost most of the subtlety of this fine novel.

Susan Elkin’s Study and Revise for GCSE: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro was published by Hodder Education in 2016.

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