It's about false consciousness — both the false consciousness of the people who are able to dehumanize these clones at the same time as they go to absurd lengths to educate and care for them, and the false consciousness of the clones who believe in all of the institutions that have been built up around their non-personhood. A more conventional telling of this story would have a viewpoint character who's one of the oppressors, perhaps somebody who has a crisis of conscience about mistreating these poor clones.
And there are a couple people like that in the story. The clones are surrounded — hemmed in — by social institutions, both ones that they've been taught and ones that they've created themselves.
Even after these characters "graduate" from Hailsham, we still see them existing within a microculture that has its own customs as well as its own superstitions — including the idea that if you're really in love, you can get a deferral on your organ "Donations. In other words, Never Let Me Go — with its love triangle and its Brideshead Revisited -style drama about people whose wistful silences speak of complicated inner lives, and its gorgeous scenes of school assemblies and treasured objects and earnest discussions of arcane rules — really hints at the ways in which false consciousness both imprisons and sustains us.
And this is where the book version of Never Let Me Go may have an insurmountable advantage over the film — in the book, Kathy's narration painstakingly describes the art classes, and the ways in which the clones are taught the importance of Creation, as well as things like the role-playing sessions where the clones play-act things like working in a coffee shop in the real world. It all feels no more artificial and weird than any other memoir of an insular British boarding school — but when we're shown these things, in the movie, they feel much more instantly ironic, despite the deliberate slowness of Mark Romanek's direction.
In the book, suspension of disbelief isn't a problem, because you inhabit Kathy's point of view so fully and you believe what she believes — but the movie doesn't quite ever succeed in pulling us into Kathy's point of view to the same extent, just because of the limitations of the form. It doesn't help that Romanek skips through incidents in the book at a brisk pace, hitting all of the plot points but never lingering long enough to let us become fully immersed. Either way, there's a lot of stiff upper lip and quiet resolve and people staring off into the middle distance.
Here's one of the film's more potent scenes, where Ruth tells Kathy that Tommy only likes Kathy as a friend:. Deprived of the power to pull us into Kathy's story through her all-enveloping voice except for the occasional voice-over Romanek instead relies on lots of evocative, painterly visuals. The cinematography in this film has been justly praised, and there's a constant flow of images in between the scenes featuring people interacting: a toy bird, a tree, pieces of plastic clinging to a fence, and other random objects appear in the frame for a few moments, then vanish, as if they ought to be jogging our memories.
Or as if we're watching someone's home movies. It's a sometimes distracting, sometimes very effective way of reminding us that we're witnessing a coming-of-age romance like any other, despite the weirdness of the underlying concept. But that brings me to my biggest complaint about this film, which might not bother anybody else: large portions of almost every frame are out of focus.
Ruth often ignores Tommy and Kathy in her efforts to blend in with the veterans, who are not from Hailsham. Kathy notices that the veterans regard the Hailsham students with awe. One couple, Chrissie and Rodney, are especially interested in Hailsham.
In Norfolk, Chrissie and Rodney ask about a rumored exception allowing Hailsham couples in love to defer their donations. Ruth pretends to know something about deferrals, which surprises Kathy and Tommy. The students eventually find the open-plan office. They follow her to an art gallery, where they realize that the woman does not actually resemble Ruth.
Tommy tells Kathy that he has begun drawing pictures of imaginary animals. After Norfolk, Ruth stops talking about her dream future. Tommy shows his drawings to Kathy, who finds them puzzling but captivating.
Shortly afterwards, Kathy submits her application for carer training and departs. While Kathy is good at her job, the work is both difficult and lonely. She unexpectedly runs into a Hailsham friend named Laura, who is also a carer.
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They talk about Ruth, who had a bad first donation. They also talk about Hailsham, which has closed. They pick up Tommy on the way to the boat, which they find bleached and crumbling in a marsh. The marsh reminds both Tommy and Ruth of Hailsham. They also discuss Chrissie, who completed on her second donation.
Review: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro | Books | The Guardian
On the return trip, Ruth apologizes for keeping Tommy and Kathy apart. In the weeks that follow, Kathy and Ruth reminisce peacefully about Hailsham and the Cottages. Ruth completes after her second donation.
Tommy gives his third donation, and Kathy becomes his carer. Is he issuing a warning about the ethics of reproductive science? I suspect Ishiguro's intention is both more personal and more literary. The theme of cloning lets him push to the limit ideas he's nurtured in earlier fiction about memory and the human self; the school's hothouse seclusion makes it an ideal lab for his fascination with cliques, loyalty and friendship.
The voice he's written for Kathy H. She has a capacity to grow and love that is heroic under the circumstances. Often quite wittily, Ishiguro shows how the Hailsham kids, cut off from outside contact, manage to fill in the blanks of their world with taboos, jokes, fantasies, fads and paranoid rumors of the unknown.
The eeriest feature of this alien world is how familiar it feels. It's like a stripped-down, haiku vision of children everywhere, fending off the chaos of existence by inventing their own rules. So the dare Ishiguro has taken on might be this: to capture what is unmistakably human, what survives and insists on subtly expressing itself after you subtract the big stuff -- the specific baggage, the parents, orientation toward a culture, a past and possible futures -- that shapes people into individuals.
As Kathy and Ruth and Tommy enter a haunted, attenuated adulthood, their friendship becomes a shifting love triangle. We root for Kathy -- which is not quite the same thing as identifying with her. For, authentic as her emotions may be, by definition she's personality-challenged. At times uncomfortably, for a work that aims to give us a distilled and persevering human essence, we can sense the controlling care with which Ishiguro invents and organizes her memories.
Yet if the novel feels a bit too distant to move us to outright heartbreak, it delivers images of odd beauty and a mounting existential distress that hangs around long after we read it. View all New York Times newsletters.
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When Ishiguro first rose to literary superstardom, the key to understanding his uncanny, poetically concentrated voice seemed to be his international heritage he was born in postwar Nagasaki, and raised in England from the age of 6 ; it helped explain his protagonists' unstable sense of perspective. The new novel puts one in mind of a less remarked fact from his youth. Before becoming a full-time writer in the early 's, he spent three years as a social worker, assisting homeless people. In interviews he has described both his idealism during that era and the disillusionment he ultimately felt.
Why is this relevant? Kathy may be the most honest of Ishiguro's protagonists to date, but there are secret-keepers in this novel, and their story and their motives pique our interest too.