Kathy H has a story to tell, a tale of a childhood that never ended. She, her sister-friend Ruth, and her brother-lover Tommy each live a life so innocent and full of helpless naivete that their stories are supposed to be blood-chilling. Theirs is a dream most of us have as a passing fancy. They never have to worry about growing old, paying the mortgage, or keeping car insurance. They’ll never be disappointed in their children or find themselves in a loveless marriage. In this aspect their lives seem ideal, yet the price they pay for their eternal youth is a fact each soon has to face at one point or another: they, essentially, are already dead. None of them nor any of their classmates were ever really born to this world. They can never really know what it means to be human in all its complicated and wrinkled mess.
The premise of Never Let Me Go is a badly kept secret, which won’t be spoiled here, not if it can be helped. Yet, everyone seems to know the gist of this plot, and what pulls readers through is how these characters react to their fates, how they fill their days in the meantime, and, not to mention, what is the reasoning behind the improbable science of such a sinister and calculated society. Ishiguro’s writing is sparse and painfully childlike, so that Kathy’s story-telling is of an adolescent girl who rambles and backtracks in a stifled and awkward manner. Unfortunately this voice quickly loses charm because she doesn’t progress. This may be the point of our author, stressing the idea that these kids are essentially trapped, but that means we’re trapped right there with them, and the story suffers in this stylistic rut.
The more interesting aspects of the book get buried under the dead weight of a lifeless voice. Ishiguro could have pushed the idea of hyper-pubescence, of youth whose only known and experienced universe is the school they attended, the renowned and mysterious Hailsham that provided a surrogate family for our main characters. The tenuous relationship among these three schoolkids, Ruth, Kathy, and Tommy, is almost intriguing enough to hold our attention, yet these characters act and react to one another in such predictable ways. Ruth doesn’t let anyone down at playing the selfish popular kid in class. Kathy is frustratingly the insider-outsider, a stereotypical participant observer. And Tommy, we don’t know whether to hit him over the head or walk away with the rest of his classmates and leave him to his own devices. He shows glimpses of ingenuity; each of them do, but as their report cards might have read, none of them live up to their full potential. Once these characters are established to the reader any transformation seems glacial in movement. Global warming has progressed faster than these three.
We’re all aware of survival-of-the-fittest dynamics in school. Hailsham is certainly no different. The kids “grew up” here, if you can call it growing up, and Hailsham is the only family they will ever have, the only world they’ll ever know. Any usual drama that a kid faces in class such as bullying, teasing, and the making and breaking of friendships are exponentially significant for these characters. Ishiguro has taken the grade school and high school experience and ripped them a part from the rest of society, making adolescence a separate entity in and of itself, existing in a virtual vacuum, a stand-alone laboratory where we as readers can examine the complicated microcosm of juvenescence in study and at play. Unfortunately, we’re all too familiar with these themes and tropes, which make up the bulk of too many novels, TV shows, and movies. Disappointingly, Ishiguro doesn’t have much to add to the coming-of-age story, nor does he delve deep enough into the ethical issues that the premise raises. We hunger just as much as Ruth, Kathy, and Tommy, to be something bigger, part of something grander than what our peers and teachers presume for us, and, unfortunately, we’re left stunted by the limited imaginations of our authorities.