This book builds suspense and intrigue like the promise of a good… sneeze, only to see the eventual climax evaporate into thin air. Listening to someone scrape their fingers down a blackboard would have been easier than listening to Kathy tell her story, recalling memories from childhood with an implausible and unemotional clarity. Even Kazuo Ishiguro himself admits, rather sheepishly, to having overplayed the “mysterious” elements of the book to the extent that the basic philosophical and ideological issues he had intended to probe seem to pass somewhat under the radar.
With what almost sounds like regret, Kazuo says that people tend to get more out of the book when they read it for a second time (or perhaps after having watched the movie?). Which is a shame – in this day an age it’s hard to sell a book once, let alone twice. That’s not to say I didn’t work out early on that this was about clones. (That’s not a spoiler either – Kazuo says if he were to republish the book he’d like to throw people that bone on page 1 as opposed to page 79). But as one who hadn’t seen the movie, and had blocked my ears to all book reviews and water-cooler chatter and presented myself to the author as a blank slate, I was simply suffocated under the weighty blanket of “subtlety”. Had I been unimpeded by doing the chonological math of who said what when, and (more crucially) why I would have had more opportunity to ponder the deeper questions at the heart of the book.
Are these clones human?
Do these clones have souls?
Are clones capable of love?
Is it ethical to create life for the sole purpose of sustaining other lives?
But sadly Kathy’s dead-pan voice (“peculiar” as one reviewer diplomatically puts it) ensures that questions of this depth barely get legs, let alone organs. And there’s another problem – why doesn’t medical science feature at all? It reeks of laziness that there isn’t even an attempt to deal with the practical issues of how the clones are created (a hint of a test-tube and a lab but nothing substantial). Nor is there any reference to the health implications of repeated organ donations – apart from the inevitability of “completing” (dying) after one or multiple donations.
But where is all the gruesome detail? Such as, for example, in what order are the organs donated? Which organs are the most sought after and why? On what grounds was the decision made to keep donors alive in between donations – doesn’t this only put more strain on the other organs and therefore reduce their efficacy? Why not just take the whole body all at once – surely it’s cheaper, more straightforward, and would reduce the risk of a clone-revolt?
Then regarding the clones themselves: How sick do they really become after these donations? What medical interventions are required to keep the donors alive after 1, 2, 3 donations? What is the financial cost involved and are we really to believe that no political movement has survived to oppose this practice? More to the point – why have clones, presented as fully-realised, physically capable, thinking human beings, not become politically active for themselves? Why no resistance movement? Why do clones accept the paperwork that sends them off for a third or fourth donation, without question? And of course clones only represent half of the story – where are the recipients of these donations and what is their story?
But those aren’t the only questions left clanging about in my head. I wanted to know if ALL donor parts are viable – including for example the face – if so, can the clones be genetically modified to be more “beautiful”? Which leads to the higher order questions: what genetic modification is involved to ensure that donors are born with the best possible specimen parts, and what are the implications of such a practice for society as a whole? (as in, far from being lesser human beings, are the clones in fact perfect in every sense?). This latter question is touched on but discarded on the pile of other unexplored questions, as if the whole thing was giving poor Ishiguro a headache.
In this sense, Never Let Me Go is a catalogue of missed opportunities. The failure to put some intellectual muscle into the sci-fi element is a glaring flaw, but what really echos in the emptiness is the love story that Kathy never fully understands herself a part of. She flounders around the hallways of her mind, unemotional, arrogant, paranoid and horny, clutching at memories of Tommy in an effort define what true, deep love really is and whether indeed this is what they shared. By any normal human definition of the term, love is clearly what bound them. They enjoyed each other’s company. They looked out for each other. They were connected by more than just words but some kind of deeper understanding. They felt each other’s pain. They had a good sex life, when they finally got around to kicking it off that is. If there is any mystery here, it is how Kathy took SO long to understand that what she felt towards Tommy was, simply and precisely, love.
But therein lies Ishiguro’s – dare I say it – brilliance. Because Kathy is a Clone; she’s not a “normal” human being, is she?