When I finished reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go, I sat still on the sofa and thought about it. I felt unbelievably moved. What is it really about? Is it about our inhumanity to each other? Certainly, there is that.
Set in an alternative 1990s Britain, Never Let Me Go depicts Hailsham, a boarding school where children are encouraged to be creative and are given frequent medical examinations. They don’t go home for holidays. Hailsham is their home. Are they orphans? Gradually, as they grow older we learn as they do that they have been cloned to become donors, organ donors.
The novel was short-listed for the Booker prize in 2005, but I steadfastly refused to read it because I was too squeamish. Being stuck on a mountain made me less choosey and, having more or less enjoyed Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans, I downloaded Never Let Me Go on my iPad mini. Whereas the stilted voice of the detective in When We Were Orphans irritated me, the humane voice of Kathy in Never Let Me Go drew me in immediately. Very soon I loved the three main characters, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy.
They are being raised outside of normal society so when they are released into it to live out their abbreviated lives, they can only guess at how it actually works. For much of the time, they are equally in the dark about the donation process. Mercifully, so is the reader, although we do eventually see Ruth and Tommy in recovery between donations. Kathy is their carer supporting them through the process. Four donations seem to be the limit, during or after which, donors complete. Kathy is about to finish her years as a carer and start being a donor. Is it possible that there really is a way to get a deferral if donors can prove they are in love?
The book had a cathartic effect on me. Like a Greek tragedy, it incited “pity and terror”. No doubt this had to do with the fact that I had spent much of the last few days sitting by a loved one with a serious illness – a very heart opening if fearful experience. A never-let-me-go experience.
At the same time, Peter L. Bernstein’s book about risk Against the Gods came to my attention. Bernstein contends that people are not so much risk averse as they are loss averse. He quotes Amos Tversky who says that “the human pleasure machine is much more sensitive to negative than to positive stimuli”. We can imagine a few things that would make us feel better, but “the number of things that would make you feel worse is unbounded.” And some losses we know we could never recover from.
Reviewing Never Let Me Go in the Guardian, M. John Harrison said that the novel “isn’t about cloning or being a clone”. I think he is right. The donors endure, fulfilling their role as it has been laid down for them. The novel is about life as we all experience it. Harrison ends his review: “It’s about why we don’t explode, why we don’t just wake up one day and go sobbing and crying down the street, kicking everything to pieces out of the raw, infuriating, completely personal sense of our lives never having been what they could have been.”