Earlier this week I wrote of my dismay with reviewers who give away too much of a book, yet as I sit down to discuss Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, I can’t think of any way to really do it justice without revealing some of the major plot points. As always, the major reason to read a work by Ishiguro is his prose, which is lyrical easily conjures all sorts of emotions. Therefore, I am not going to worry too much about what I feel I must spoil, though readers who want to approach the work freshly would be advised to stop reading now.
The story focuses on Kathy H. and two of her classmates at the elite prep school, Hailsham. Yet, it doesn’t take long to realize that things are not as they seem. The school is taught by ‘Guardians,’ and the children are being raised so that they will give ‘donations.’ Kathy becomes a ‘carer,’ and as the narrative progresses, the true purpose of the students’ mission becomes clear: they are all clones, and after they reach adulthood, they will be forced to donate their vital organs to ‘normal’ people.
All through the book, I kept wondering what the point of Hailsham really was. Why spend so much time and resources to educate clones who have no other purpose to the greater community than to dispense their organs in a timely way? At the book’s conclusion, as Kathy H. travels to speak with the former head Guardian, it is revealed that the school was a social experiment. We as readers have been insulated from the viewpoint outside the community of the main characters, so the only concept we get of the greater British community is through their eyes. Here for the first time, we are made aware of the fierce debate concerning whether or not the children/clones had souls and whether it was appropriate to use them in this manner.
Ishiguro deals with this problem on the personal level, so the concerns of greater society are only of peripheral importance in his narrative. However, it is clear to me that by using clones, people who are stripped of much of what we consider common experience (parents, hope for the future, etc.), he is able to get at some underlying essence we all have that makes us human. Even apart from these things, no reader could casually say that Kathy H. didn’t have a soul just because she is a clone. Her story is too well rendered for that to be the case.
As I finished the book, I read Gary Greenberg’s recent review of neurochemistry books in Harper’s. According to the article, recent neuroscience is coming closer to state definitively that the Cartesian model of the ghost in the machine isn’t accurate. Instead, what makes us ‘us’ is isn’t what is in our brain, it is our brain. As the article claims, the frontal cortex ‘is the substrate of our individuality…not just our cognitive capabilities, but our character—our personhood, so to speak—resides’ here. And though the article goes into some surprisingly Brechtian territory, it isn’t germane to Ishiguro’s novel.
I am not claiming that Ishiguro’s purpose was to campaign for clones’ rights. That said, reading these two pieces in conjunction caused me to question the very idea of a similar operation being present in our world. Despite the fact that we ‘normal’ people would live in a world free of cancer and terminal disease, I think as neuroscience continues to advance we would have no choice but to admit that clones such as Kathy H. are no less human than we. The only difference noted between clones and others is their inability to procreate; nothing that would suggest varying brain chemistry is touched upon.
A profound novel is one that causes us to question the reality that we live in, along with providing a compelling and intelligent narrative. Never Let Me Go delivers on both counts.