Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro


Rating: (Highly Recommended)




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When you read Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, Never Let Me Go, you’re likely to remain thinking about what you’ve read for a long time. In the world he creates, set in Britain in the late 1990s, clones are created for future organ harvesting. Gradually, three characters come to understand their purpose in life. There’s a haunting quality to this book that reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. Ishiguro’s writing abounds in delicacy that conveys meaning through indirection and gradual disclosure. The narrator, Kathy H., recalls life at school, Hailsham, with Tommy and Ruth, in this excerpt, all of Chapter Eight, pp. 90-99:


Many of us had turned sixteen by then. It was a morning of bril­liant sunshine and we’d all just come down to the courtyard after a lesson in the main house, when I remembered something I’d left in the classroom. So I went back up to the third floor and that’s how the thing with Miss Lucy happened.

In those days I had this secret game. When I found myself alone, I’d stop and look for a view—out of a window, say, or through a doorway into a room—any view so long as there were no people in it. I did this so that I could, for a few seconds at least, create the illusion the place wasn’t crawling with students, but that instead Hailsham was this quiet, tranquil house where I lived with just five or six others. To make this work, you had to get yourself into a sort of dream, and shut off all the stray noises and voices. Usually you had to be pretty patient too: if, say, you were focusing from a window on one particular bit of the playing field, you could wait ages for those couple of seconds when there wasn’t anyone at all in your frame. Anyway, that was what I was doing that morning after I’d fetched whatever it was I’d left in the class­room and come back out onto the third-floor landing.

I was keeping very still near a window looking down onto a section of the courtyard where I’d been standing only moments before. My friends had gone, and the courtyard was steadily emp­tying, so I was waiting for my trick to work, when I heard behind me what sounded like gas or steam escaping in sharp bursts.

It was a hissing noise that would go on for about ten seconds, pause, then come again. I wasn’t alarmed exactly, but since I seemed to be the only person around, I thought I’d better go and investigate.

I went across the landing towards the sound, along the corri­dor past the room I’d just been in, and down to Room 22, second from the end. The door was partly open, and just as I came up to it, the hissing started up again with a new intensity. I don’t know what I expected to discover as I cautiously pushed the door, but I was properly surprised to find Miss Lucy.

Room 22 was hardly used for classes because it was so small and, even on a day like that one, hardly any light got in. The guardians sometimes went in there to mark our work or get on with reading. That morning the room was darker than ever because the blinds had been pulled almost all the way down. There were two tables pushed together for a group to sit around, but Miss Lucy was there alone near the back. I could see several loose sheets of dark, shiny paper scattered over the table in front of her. She herself was leaning over in concentration, forehead very low, arms up on the surface, scrawling furious lines over a page with a pen­cil. Underneath the heavy black lines I could see neat blue hand­writing. As I watched, she went on scrubbing the pencil point over the paper, almost in the way we did shading in Art, except her movements were much more angry, as if she didn’t mind gouging right through the sheet. Then I realised, in the same instant, that this was the source of the odd noise, and that what I’d taken for dark shiny paper on the table had also, not long before, been pages of neat handwriting.

She was so lost in what she was doing, it took a while for her to realise I was there. When she looked up with a start, I could see her face was flushed, but there were no traces of tears. She stared at me, then put down her pencil.

“Hello, young lady,” she said, then took a deep breath. “What can I do for you?”

I think I turned away so I didn’t have to look at her or at the papers over the desk. I can’t remember if I said very much—if I explained about the noise and how I’d worried about it being gas. In any case, there was no proper conversation: she didn’t want me there and neither did I. I think I made some apology and went out, half expecting her to call me back. But she didn’t, and what I remember now is that I went down the staircase burning with shame and resentment. At that moment I wished more than any­thing that I hadn’t seen what I’d just seen, though if you’d asked me to define just what I was so upset about, I wouldn’t have been able to explain. Shame, as I say, had a lot to do with it, and also fury, though not exactly at Miss Lucy herself. I was very confused, and that’s probably why I didn’t say anything about it to my friends until much later.

After that morning I became convinced something else— perhaps something awful—lay around the corner to do with Miss Lucy, and I kept my eyes and ears open for it. But the days passed and I heard nothing. What I didn’t know at the time was that something pretty significant had happened only a few days after I’d seen her in Room 22—something between Miss Lucy and Tommy that had left him upset and disorientated. There would have been a time not so much earlier when Tommy and I would have immediately reported to each other any news of this sort; but just around that summer, various things were going on which meant we weren’t talking so freely.

That’s why I didn’t hear about it for so long. Afterwards I could have kicked myself for not guessing, for not seeking Tommy out and getting it out of him. But as I’ve said, there was a lot going on around then, between Tommy and Ruth, a whole host of other stuff, and I’d put all the changes I’d noticed in him down to that.

It’s probably going too far to say Tommy’s whole act fell apart that summer, but there were times when I got seriously worried he was turning back into the awkward and changeable figure from several years before. Once, for instance, a few of us were going back from the pavilion towards the dorm huts and found ourselves walking behind Tommy and a couple of other boys. They were just a few paces ahead, and all of them—Tommy included— looked to be in good form, laughing and shoving each other. In fact, I’d say Laura, who was walking beside me, took her cue from the way the boys were larking about. The thing was, Tommy must have been sitting on the ground earlier, because there was a size-able chunk of mud stuck on his rugby shirt near the small of his back. He was obviously unaware of it, and I don’t think his friends had seen it either or they’d surely have made something of it. Any­way, Laura being Laura shouted out something like: “Tommy! You got poo-poo on your back! What have you been doing?”

She’d done this in a completely friendly way, and if some of the rest of us made a few noises too, it wasn’t anything more than the sort of thing students did the whole time. So it was a complete shock when Tommy came to a dead halt, wheeled round and stared at Laura with a face like thunder. We all stopped too—the boys looking as bewildered as we were—and for a few seconds I thought Tommy was going to blow for the first time in years. But then he abruptly stalked off, leaving us all swapping looks and shrugging.

Nearly as bad was the time I showed him Patricia C.’s calen­dar. Patricia was two years below us but everyone was in awe of her drawing skills, and her stuff was always sought after at the Art Exchanges. I’d been particularly pleased with the calendar, which I’d managed to get at the last Exchange, because word had been going round about it from weeks before. It wasn’t anything like, say, Miss Emily’s flappy colour calendars of the English counties. Patricia’s calendar was tiny and dumpy, and for each month there Was a stunning little pencil sketch of a scene from Hailsham life. I wish I still had it now, especially since in some of the pictures—like the ones for June and for September—you can make out the faces of particular students and guardians. It’s one of the things I lost when I left the Cottages, when my mind was elsewhere and I wasn’t being so careful what I took with me—but I’ll come to all that in its place. My point now is that Patricia’s calendar was a real catch, I was proud of it, and that’s why I wanted to show it to Tommy.

I’d spotted him standing in the late afternoon sunshine beside the big sycamore near the South Playing Field, and since my cal­endar was there in my bag—I’d been showing it off during our music lesson—I’d gone over to him.

He was absorbed in a football match involving some younger boys over in the next field and at this stage his mood seemed just fine, tranquil even. He smiled when I came up to him and we chatted for a minute about nothing in particular. Then I said:

“Tommy, look what I managed to get.” I didn’t try to keep the tri­umph out of my voice, and I may even have gone “dah-dah!” as I brought it out and handed it to him. When he took the calendar, there was still a smile on his features, but as he flicked through I could see something closing off inside him.

“That Patricia,” I began to say, but I could hear my own voice changing. “She’s so clever. . .“

But Tommy was already handing it back to me. Then without another word he marched past me off towards the main house.

This last incident should have given me a clue. If I’d thought about it with half a brain, I should have guessed Tommy’s recent moods had something to do with Miss Lucy and his old problems about “being creative.” But with everything else going on just at that time, I didn’t, as I say, think in these terms at all. I suppose I must have assumed those old problems had been left behind with our early teen years, and that only the big issues that now loomed so large could possibly preoccupy any of us.

So what had been going on? Well, for a start, Ruth and Tommy had had a serious bust-up. They’d been a couple for about six months by then; at least, that’s how long they’d been “public” about it—walking around with arms around each other, that kind of thing. They were respected as a couple because they weren’t show-offs. Some others, Sylvia B. and Roger D., for example, could get stomach-churning, and you had to give them a chorus of vomiting noises just to keep them in order. But Ruth and Tommy never did anything gross in front of people, and if some­times they cuddled or whatever, it felt like they were genuinely doing it for each other, not for an audience.

Looking back now, I can see we were pretty confused about this whole area around sex. That’s hardly surprising, I suppose, given we were barely sixteen. But what added to the confusion— I can see it more clearly now—was the fact that the guardians were themselves confused. On the one hand we had, say, Miss Emily’s talks, when she’d tell us how important it was not to be ashamed of our bodies, to “respect our physical needs,” how sex was “a very beautiful gift” as long as both people really wanted it. But when it came down to it, the guardians made it more or less impossible for any of us actually to do much without break­ing rules. We couldn’t visit the boys’ dorms after nine o’clock, they couldn’t visit ours. The classrooms were all officially “out of bounds” in the evenings, as were the areas behind the sheds and the pavilion. And you didn’t want to do it in the fields even when it was warm enough, because you’d almost certainly discover afterwards you’d had an audience watching from the house pass­ing around binoculars. In other words, for all the talk of sex being beautiful, we had the distinct impression we’d be in trouble if the guardians caught us at it.

I say this, but the only real case I personally knew of like that was when Jenny C. and Rob D. got interrupted in Room 14. They were doing it after lunch, right there over one of the desks, and Mr. Jack had come in to get something. According to Jenny, Mr. Jack had turned red and gone right out again, but they’d been put off and had stopped. They’d more or less dressed themselves when Mr. Jack came back, just as though for the first time, and pretended to be surprised and shocked.

“It’s very clear to me what you’ve been doing and it’s not appropriate,” he’d said, and told them both to go and see Miss Emily. But once they’d got to Miss Emily’s office, she’d told them she was on her way to an important meeting and didn’t have time to talk to them.

“But you know you shouldn’t have been doing whatever you were doing, and I don’t expect you’ll do it again,” she’d said, before rushing out with her folders.

Gay sex, incidentally, was something we were even more con­fused about. For some reason, we called it “umbrella sex”; if you fancied someone your own sex, you were “an umbrella.” I don’t know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham we definitely weren’t at all kind towards any signs of gay stuff. The boys espe­cially could do the cruellest things. According to Ruth this was because quite a few of them had done things with each other when they’d been younger, before they’d realised what they were doing. So now they were ridiculously tense about it. I don’t know if she was right, but for sure, accusing someone of “getting all umbrella” could easily end in a fight.

When we discussed all these things—as we did endlessly back then—we couldn’t decide whether or not the guardians wanted us to have sex or not. Some people thought they did, but that we kept trying to do it at all the wrong times. Hannah had the theory that it was their duty to make us have sex because otherwise we wouldn’t be good donors later on. According to her, things like your kidneys and pancreas didn’t work properly unless you kept having sex. Someone else said what we had to remember was that the guardians were “normals.” That’s why they were so odd about it; for them, sex was for when you wanted babies, and even though they knew, intellectually, that we couldn’t have babies, they still felt uneasy about us doing it because deep down they couldn’t quite believe we wouldn’t end up with babies.

Annette B. had another theory: that the guardians were uncomfortable about us having sex with each other because they’d then want to have sex with us. Mr. Chris in particular, she said, looked at us girls in that way. Laura said that what Annette really meant was she wanted to have sex with Mr. Chris. We all cracked up at this because the idea of having sex with Mr. Chris seemed absurd, as well as completely sick-making.

The theory I think came closest was the one put forward by Ruth. “They’re telling us about sex for after we leave Hailsham,” she said. “They want us to do it properly, with someone we like and without getting diseases. But they really mean it for after we leave. They don’t want us doing it here, because it’s too much hassle for them.”

My guess, anyway, is that there wasn’t nearly as much sex going on as people made out. A lot of snogging and touching up, maybe; and couples hinting they were having proper sex. But looking back, I wonder how much of it there really was. If every­one who claimed to be doing it really had been, then that’s all you’d have seen when you walked about Hailsham—couples going at it left, right and centre.

What I remember is that there was this discreet agreement among us all not to quiz each other too much about our claims. If, say, Hannah rolled her eyes when you were discussing another girl and murmured: “Virgin”—meaning “Of course we’re not, but she is, so what can you expect?”—then it definitely wasn’t on to ask her: “Who did you do it with? When? Where?” No, you just nodded knowingly. It was like there was some parallel universe we all vanished off to where we had all this sex.

I must have seen at the time how all these claims being made around me didn’t add up. All the same, as that summer approached, I began to feel more and more the odd one out. In a way, sex had got like “being creative” had been a few years earlier. It felt like if you hadn’t done it yet, you ought to, and quickly. And in my case, the whole thing was made more complicated by the fact that two of the girls I was closest to definitely had done it. Laura with Rob D., even though they’d never been a proper couple. And Ruth with Tommy.

For all that, I’d been holding it off for ages, repeating to myself Miss Emily’s advice—”If you can’t find someone with whom you truly wish to share this experience, then don’t!” But around the spring of the year I’m talking about now, I started to think I wouldn’t mind having sex with a boy. Not just to see what it was like, but also because it occurred to me I needed to get familiar with sex, and it would be just as well to practise first with a boy I didn’t care about too much. Then later on, if I was with someone special, I’d have more chance of doing everything right. What I mean is, if Miss Emily was correct and sex was this really big deal between people, then I didn’t want to be doing it for the first time when it was really important how well it went.

So I had my eye on Harry C. I chose him for a number of reasons. First, I knew he’d definitely done it before, with Sharon D. Next, I didn’t fancy him that much, but I certainly didn’t find him sick-making. Also, he was quiet and decent, so unlikely to go round gossiping afterwards if it was a complete disaster. And he’d hinted a few times he’d like to have sex with me. Okay, a lot of the boys were making flirty noises in those days, but it was clear by then what was a real proposition and what was the usual boys’ stuff.

So I’d chosen Harry, and I only delayed those couple of months because I wanted to make sure I’d be all right physically. Miss Emily had told us it could be painful and a big failure if you didn’t get wet enough and this was my one real worry. It wasn’t being ripped apart down there, which we often joked about, and was the secret fear of quite a few girls. I kept thinking, as long as I got wet quick enough, there’d be no problem, and I did it a lot on my own just to make sure.

I realise this may sound like I was getting obsessive, but I remember I also spent a lot of time re-reading passages from books where people had sex, going over the lines again and again, trying to tease out clues. The trouble was, the books we had at Hailsham weren’t at all helpful. We had a lot of nineteenth-century stuff by Thomas Hardy and people like that, which was more or less useless. Some modern books, by people like Edna O’Brien and Margaret Drabble, had some sex in them, but it wasn’t ever very clear what was happening because the authors always assumed you’d already had a lot of sex before and there was no need to go into details. So I was having a frustrating time with the books, and the videos weren’t much better. We’d got a video player in the billiards room a couple of years earlier, and by that spring had built up quite a good collection of movies. A lot of them had sex in them, but most scenes would end just as the sex was starting up, or else you’d only see their faces and their backs. And when there was a useful scene, it was difficult to see it more than fleetingly because there were usually twenty others in the room watching with you. We’d evolved this system where we called for particular favourite scenes to be played again—like, for instance, the moment the American jumps over the barbed wire on his bike in The Great Escape. There’d be a chant of, “Rewind! Rewind!” until someone got the remote and we’d see the portion again, sometimes three, four times. But I could hardly, by myself, start shouting for rewinds just to see sex scenes again.

So I kept delaying week by week, while I went on preparing, until the summer came and I decided I was as ready as I’d ever be. By then, I was even feeling reasonably confident about it, and began dropping hints to Harry. Everything was going fine and according to plan, when Ruth and Tommy split up and it all got confused.


During a time when our science can outpace our ethics, Never Let Me Go provides a backdrop for thinking about the purpose of any individual life and the value of our life in community, especially when personal freedom is restricted. I highly recommend reading Never Let Me Go, a well written and thought provoking novel.


Steve Hopkins, June 25, 2005



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 in the July 2005 issue of Executive Times


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