Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

In a way, Never Let Me Go was written to be read twice. It maps the transition from childhood to adulthood--in particular, the childhoods of friends Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy at Hailsham, a kind of English boarding school--and if reading it once is like living through one's youth, compulsively guessing at what comes next, reading it a second time is like the process of memory, which recognizes the great ironies and sadnesses of such naivete. Ishiguro chooses to write in this second mode, as a series of reflections by a Kathy in her late twenties. Though it may seem silly, my sympathy for her increased since we were both, in a sense, going through the events of the book for the second time. And while knowing its "big secrets" deprived me of the satisfying shock of learning them, it rendered the characters' limited understanding of their own fate even more tragic.

For that reason, I think it's impossible to talk about this book without revealing its central mystery, so consider your self alerted for spoilers. At the time of her writing, Kathy is a "carer" who looks after "donors," and at first all we know is that she will become one herself, as Ruth and Tommy have. It's possible to unknot the scenario from that sentence alone, I think, but not its full limitations, and Ishiguro brilliantly metes out details in coffee spoons. At Hailsham, one teacher, Ms. Lucy, eventually drops the bombshell:

"If you're going to have a decent lives, then you've got to know and know properly. None of you will go to America, none of you will be film stars. And none of you will be working in supermarkets as I heard some of you planning the other day. Your lives are set out for you. You'll become adults, then before you're old, before you're even middle-aged, you'll star to donate your vital organs. That's what each of you was created to do..."

But, as Ms. Lucy says, the students have been "told and not told." We, too, have been "told and not told," and by the time Ms. Lucy spells it out, we're not sure whether we knew it all along or not. This uncertainty is, on the level of pure craftsmanship, Ishiguro's greatest achievement.

But this realization only brings more questions: What, for instance, is the purpose of the "Gallery," where Hailsham's mysterious director "Madame" takes the best of the students' artwork? Later, when Kathy cares for Tommy during his donation period, bringing out a long-gestating romance, they decide to act on rumors that former Hailsham students can receive a deferral from their donations if they can prove they're in love. The Gallery, they posit, allows the powers-that-be to look into their souls and determine if their love is genuine.

But, as the old headmaster tells them, the purpose of the Gallery was to prove that they "had souls at all." They were proof that, like "normal" people, the donors could be creative, and served in a long publicity war to establish humane homes--like Hailsham--for future donors. This floors Kathy and Tommy, and us, for whom the uncertainty seems absurd. They do what other humans do: They fall in love; they have squabbles petty and serious; they have sex; they desire independence; they create; they sell; they buy; they betray each other; they try vainly to make sense of the order of their own lives--how could they be less than human, and not have souls? I said in my previous review that Never Let Me Go asks what it means to be human, but now I see that simply to ask the question is devastatingly offensive. Kathy and Tommy are put somewhat in Shylock's position. Though they want desperately to establish human rights to love and independence, they find themselves having to earn the simple right to be human at all.

I think now that Never Let Me Go asks other questions. One is, Is it better to know or to not know? Part of Hailsham's "humane" task is to shield its students from the essential bleakness of their futures, and to give them a childhood. Ishiguro strongly suggests that denying the students' full knowledge of their own lives is a contradiction, in that it denies them also the human right to face life with their own faculties. But there is also the campfire story of the girl whose ghost roams the Hailsham woods, yearning to get back in, as Kathy yearns to recapture a more idyllic childhood.

Another is What is the proper response to injustice? In the hands of a hack writer, Kathy and Tommy would be Katniss Everdeens, raging against the machine that confines them. The sequel (Still Never Letting Go) would be all about the rebellion they lead. But they choose instead to live quiet lives, making the best of the raw deal they have been given, and confirm their humanity once again by doing so. Kathy's lack of a sense of injustice is frustrating, but it is also familiar: who among us expends any real effort to correct the (admittedly slighter) cruelties of our own social order, when it takes so much effort simply to be human?

And, in turn, does that reticence support the mission of Hailsham, which says that if we cannot eliminate injustice, we should at least approach it in comfort and dignity? Though I am still unsure if the ministers of Hailsham take the right task, at least they engage in the right questions.

Okay. I'm tired of re-reading books. Half of them I've read this year have been re-reads--mostly because of teaching them in class--but I'm done with all that. The next review, I promise, will be something new.

1 comment:

Marlene Detierro said...

The horror of Never Let Me Go is that the children of Hailsham know almost exactly what lies beyond the curtain and they continue to look and participate in the pageantry of life anyway. How human of them.

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