Kathy H. looks like an ordinary woman who’s in her early 30s. She went to school, she used to have a best friend, different lovers and a proper job at the hospital. Together with being highly educated, she also looks like a very decent person: she’s patient, sensitive and caring. There’s nothing about her that would make you guess that she’s a clone. Only if you really tried to get to know her, you could come to think that there’s something strange about her or, at least, that she’s different. In fact, she’s not 100% human. Using blunt – or, maybe harsh – words, we could just say that she’s a girl made in a lab, whose only purpose in life is to donate organs to strangers until her body can stand it. This book shows in fact a distorted English society in which, despite the fact that human cloning is legal, everyone tries to forget about it. Clones, instead of being worshipped and thanked, are rejects and raised in inhuman environments, even though there are exceptions. Hailsham, for instance, is one of them. Hailsham is a school that hosts children clones, educating them as ordinary children and keeping from them the tragic truth. It’s in this context that the lives of Ruth, Tommy and Kathy are told by Kathy herself, who, with a stream of flashbacks, keeps you with bated breath from the first to the last line.
As soon as I opened the Amazon package and held the book in my hands, my first thought was: “What a horrible cover!”. I apologize for the lack of elegance, but I hope you agree with me in saying that that indefinite figure doesn’t seem appropriate to be the face of such a famous novel. Only now, that I’m trying to describe this amazing story, I find myself captivated by the way this blurry – and not really fashionable – woman stands for the whole book.
You see, what really annoyed me of that yellow/orange picture, was that I couldn’t understand what it was showing me. Was she turning towards someone? Was she running? Was she hoola-hooping? And why were her arms held so high? Similarly, once I started reading, I kept having this feeling of not being able to see something that I should have been able to see from the beginning. The reader is left with a lot of questions and too few answers, which forces him to keep reading greedily, hoping to catch that key clue that would clarify everything.
The problem – which is, I think, also the secret of “Never Let Me Go” – is that despite the delicacy of the ground on which the story is built (having to do with issues such as the organ donation), it’s developed at the same time in a terrifyingly normal atmosphere. If it wasn’t for Kathy, who tells you in the very first page that she’s a carer and that she’ll soon become a donor – which immediately triggers an alarm bell – you would take the book as an ordinary story of friendship and love.
Truth is that this book is anything but ordinary. Resorting to metaphors, I would say that it’s like a train that travels on two different rails. On one side there is the cloning world: distant, cold, heartbreaking; on the other there’s Kathy’s world, so full of emotions, of hope, of uncertainties. These two dimensions seem to be different and completely opposite, but they are though linked by the girl herself; she, despite everything, lives her first nineteen years of life as an ordinary girl, with her bossy best friend Ruth and her secret lover Tommy. But still, even though the narrator talks about her childhood and adolescence as if she wasn’t a clone and Hailsham was an ordinary school, you always sense that the end of that idyllic situation is near. This sense of ending is palpable and clear from the beginning, since the story is nothing but a stream of flashbacks.
The intrinsic sadness of “Never Let Me Go” comes from the awareness that, whatever good and joyful happens to Kathy and her friends, it’s not meant to last. You don’t know when or how, but you know that sooner or later they will have to perform their duties and start giving their organs. Even if this tragic feeling, worsened by the turbid curiosity about the “rules” of that cloning world, is kept at bay by Kathy’s random stories, it is though persistent. You try to forget about it, to convince yourself that everyone’s going to be fine, that there’s no reason to be sad, but you can’t fool yourself that much. And there’s more. Knowing that every page read is a step closer to the end, you savor each moment much more deeply and with more appreciation.
Sometimes, in particular way when the love issue is touched, you’re overwhelmed by a frustrating anger. Not only towards Hailsham or the kids’ guardians or the system itself, but also towards Kathy and her friends. How can they be so happy and carefree knowing – or at least guessing – what is awaiting them? Why can’t they at least try to run away, to fight for normal lives? And how can Kathy talk about her life as if she wasn’t seen as a sack of organs?
Once you have finished the book and you feel that bitter aftertaste in your mouth, you understand that what’s really depressing is that the stories you just read about, come from the lucky ones. Because even though the main characters are clones and thus destined to die, they still managed to have an almost decent life. A life in which they painted, studied, hated, dreamt and loved. And here’s the greatness of Kazuo Ishiguro.