Never Let Me Go could easily have been just another formulaic, sentimental story about a lifelong friendship and the way it grew and changed from childhood through the rough teen years and into a reflective adulthood. Kazuo Ishiguro, however, added another layer to his tale of Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy, a layer that diverted his novel from the maudlin path and lead it into the socially conscious and poignant realm it inhabits instead.
The novel is comprised of carer Kathy’s reminiscences over her childhood at Hailsham where Ruth was her best friend and where she always kept an eye on Tommy who sometimes had a difficult time fitting in. Hailsham, which at first appears to be some sort of boarding school, turns out to be a special facility where clones are raised for the purpose of repetitive and sacrificial organ donation upon reaching adulthood. The students are vaguely aware of the fate that awaits them but as Kathy points out several times, they are told without being told.
With a format reminiscent of a memoir, the reader’s awareness of the alternate reality in which the novel takes place builds slowly, revealed in a similar fashion to the way the students were told without being told. This deliberately paced disclosure encourages the reader to see the relatability of the novel’s setting before turning the tables. Injecting such an unsettling and plausible difference into the book causes the reader to re-examine their perceptions of characters and events as well as just how close we are to our world becoming the one on the page.
Even with the changed perspective offered with fuller knowledge of the world they in habit and their positions in it, I found the characters and events either annoyingly predictable or just plain aggravating. The relationships within the trio, particularly between Ruth and Tommy, never manage to feel completely natural. Of course, their relationships must presumably be this way for the full effect of their slightly altered world to be felt by the reader.
Kathy has the benefit, being the narrator, of analyzing her own past actions as she relates them to the reader. This allows her to highlight her reasoning at the time and to demonstrate how it has changed since those days of her childhood making her the most rounded of the characters. Her insights into her two friends, even with hindsight allowing her to rationalize their actions, are limited and I think this might be why they fell flat to me.
I can’t decide if it’s the character of Ruth that bothers me or if it’s just the way that she constantly manipulates Kathy (it could also be the way that Kathy allows herself to be manipulated). More often than not, Kathy knows exactly what Ruth is up to, and she lets it go, even when it makes her miserable. Every time she has the bratty Ruth cornered, she either makes a mistake and they call a truce or she backs down.
Tommy’s character sometimes feels as though he has no will of his own, swinging from the moody boy that everyone except Kathy picks on to suddenly cool enough for someone as popular as Ruth to date. The only time he gives the impression of being a real character is, fittingly, in the presence of Kathy. It is this subtle difference in his behavior and the well-laid clone/donation subplot that kept this novel from becoming a caricature.