Kazuo Ishiguro’s most famous book is The Remains of the Day, which is about an aging butler who realizes that he spent so much of his life striving toward a wrongheaded ideal that he never actually lived. It is really sad, and it is similar to Ishiguro’s other books. A Pale View of Hills, An Artist of the Floating World, and When We Were Orphans also feature people nearing the end of their lives recalling the choices and events that shaped their lives, usually with some mixture of shame and regret. I eat these stories up with a spoon. I read them in bed, and when I finish them I cry and cry and cry. They are my grown up replacement for S.E. Hinton books in that way, only Ishiguro writes well-regarded adult literary fiction, and he has the prizes to prove it. So it totally makes sense that he wrote a really great book about clones. Wait, what?
Never Let Me Go is the memoir of Kathy H., who is chronicling her relationships with Tommy and Ruth, her fellow students at Hailsham, which first appears to be an English boarding school, and then maybe seems like a very humane orphanage until it dawns on you that these children are clones being raised for future organ donation. In spite of the macabre nature of the students’ very existence, Hailsham is a lovely place, and Ishiguro paints it in the warm golden tones of nostalgia, laced through with troubling and ominous incidents, all of which are muddled by the haze and fuzz of memory.
Kathy is very candid about the unreliability of her memories, frequently referencing Tommy or Ruth’s differing recollections of events, wondering if things seemed important at the time or only in hindsight. The fallibility of memory is a recurring theme in Ishiguro’s work, but I don’t think any narrator has been so openly doubtful of their own memories as Kathy. Maybe none of them have had as much reason to doubt as Kathy does. She is younger than the others, perhaps, but she is telling her story after realizing that what gave her life meaning held no meaning for anyone but her, and she has lost everyone who remembers them. The book was adapted for the screen in 2010, and the movie is worth watching, but it doesn't address the fleeting and changing nature of memory in the way the book does.
The loss of those who knew you from childhood is an ache that never ends. They share your memory in a way that adult friends and family don’t. To lose a sibling or childhood friend — and for Kathy, Ruth and Tommy were some mix of the two — is to lose a part of yourself. When they die, so do their memories, and and that part of you that was shared with ceases to exist outside of yourself. Without them you start to forget, and you lose the meaning of the small gestures of your shared past.
The main meaning in Kathy's life is Tommy, but given the circumstances of their lives, a happy ending was never in the cards for them. Making their star-crossed love all the more tragic is the interference of Ruth, who is charismatic, popular, manipulative, and beloved by both. Tommy’s meaning in her life is clear and definite, but throughout the novel Kathy is attempting to puzzle out the meaning of Hailsham, why they were raised the way they were, why everyone put such an emphasis on creativity, and why their teachers and caregivers acted the way they did. She gets her answers in the end. She faces them with Tommy at her side.
In Wuthering Heights, another Cathy says of her own doomed love, “Whatever souls are made of, his and mine are the same.” Tommy and Kathy’s souls were the same, but they never had a chance at happiness in a world that denied the very existence of those souls. Ishiguro has another book coming out next year, his first in ten years. It’s called The Buried Giant, and I cannot wait to read it and cry and cry and cry.
The Dusty Shelf Book Review is a weekly column in which we take a look back at sci-fi and fantasy books that aren't new releases. Put your requests in the comments.