Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
I’ve decided since reading this and The Remains of the Day, that Ishiguro is a master of portraits of tragic repression. In this novel, it is our narrator, Kath who is incapable of feeling the anger and injustice which has been done to her by her society which relegates her to a useful container for spare organs and extended lifespan, and by her dominating and manipulative friend Ruth who denied her the only chance at love that she ever had.
The depth of Ishiguro’s mastery is such that he leads his audience to even see the way that Ruth’s continuous attempts at thwarting Kathy and gaining the admiration of others by lies winds up frustrating her own attempts at happiness and rendering her a pathetic and lonely figure for whom we have some sympathy in the end.
It is quite a natural and believable consequence of Kathy’s ability to bear all with equanimity that she would be an enduring and sensitive carer for other clones making their ‘donations’ until they have given too many to continue to live, knowing that her own fate is finally to do the same. Kath’s inability to rise to resentment and question the system within which she finds herself is moving enough to bring this reader to tears. It is most heartbreaking in the final stages of the novel after she and the fatally dwindling Tommy have managed to salvage the scraps of a tired relationship from Ruth’s discards. They visit Madame to ask for an extension of their time, and it is here that we witness with them the shocking truth of how irrelevant and peripheral they are to the world at large and even to these old activists who once tried to save them, and have had to move on. Madame has explained that she has no power to offer an extension of their lives, and they stand helplessly in her hallway whist they accustom themselves to the death of their hopes, and watch her become distracted whilst she supervises the removal of a prized piece of furniture from her house, making sure that no harm comes to it.
Tommy’s reaction to his dawning understanding of the realities of the ice cold world which views him as a donor and wants to know nothing more, is surrender, and a pathetic final clinging to his diminishing independence, which tragically means that he can no longer tolerate Kath, as his still whole carer.
And it is poor, inarticulate, instinctive and irrepressibly emotional Tommy who is the most tragic of the characters in the novel. He cannot escape his sense of his own soul, and comes to realise spontaneously that that the pictures the students created (and that he resisted) were a window to their unique spirit and a key to potential salvation. He is the one who demonstrates best the anathema of treating humans as receptacles, even more so than the tragedy of the system’s success in the form of Kath, who never ceases to be grateful for her education, and to expect nothing more than she is granted.
But at the end of the visit to Madame’s we are left with an image of the potential that once was in Kath, when she was the little girl that madame once saw, holding her pillow as a substitute for love, imagining a mother who couldn’t bear to part with her, because she’d known no mother, and had no love encouraged, whilst at the same time, Madame “saw a little girl, her eyes tightly closed, holding to her breast the old, kind world, one that she knew in her heart could not remain, and she was holding it, and pleading, never to let her go…”267. And it breaks our hearts.