It is a strange science fiction tale with a moving climax and resolution, but the plot of Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” takes awhile to get going. The intent of the slower pace is probably to establish the relationships between the three protagonists – Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy – and at the same time to allow the reader to first visualise the boarding school of Halisham (seen as “a kind of golden time”), and subsequently to get a better understanding of their lives and their choices. Across the three parts of the novel, therefore, as the three characters come to age while moving from the boarding school to the residential complex of the Cottages and finally to their eventual lives as carers and donors in treatment facilities, the same questions about their lives, existence, and purpose persistently surface.
“Never Let Me Go”, fairly early on, is revealed to be the title of a song by a fictional singer. “Baby, baby, never let me go”, as Kathy imagining that the singer was holding a literal baby close to her. At the same time, with Kathy as the narrator, her relationships with Ruth and Tommy play out differently in each of these three parts, yet even as they drift away they appear anchored by their collective experience at and growing-up memories of Halisham and the Cottages. This notion of never letting each other go, in this vein, is even more poignant, with the dystopian knowledge that they were reared to be organ donors. Once in the school, one of the guardians Miss Lucy (who was later let go), revealed to the students their true purpose as clones, to ultimately provide organs to others through a cycle of donation:
“Your lives are set out for you. You’ll become adults, then before you’re old, before you’re even middle-aged, you’ll start to donate your vital organs. That’s what each of you was created to do”. She added: “You’ll be leaving Hailsham before long, and it’s not so far off, the day you’ll be preparing for your first donations. You need to remember that. If you’re to have decent lives, you have to know who you are and what lies ahead of you, every one of you.”
And it is the organ donation (and its cruelty) and the enduring relationships of the Halisham trio which gives the novel its moving ending. Especially after the climatic meeting with Madame (Marie-Claude) and Miss Emily – who led the school – when the aforementioned questions are put to them, the broader issues about the ethics of cloning and the justification for what their students were put through are highlighted. At the same time, however, it is also the smaller concerns – of their short lives and the deceit – which perhaps drive the message home. Seen in this light, and at the very end in particular, this is a depressing tale of what-could-have-beens, and of unrequited love.