Never Let Me Go

by Kazuo Ishiguro

Knopf, 288 pp., $24

KAZUO ISHIGURO'S LATEST NOVEL IS an important, serious, and deeply depressing work. Set in the 1990s--a kind of parallel '90s, not the one we all experienced--Ishiguro's story opens through the narrative voice of Kathy H. On page one, she tells us in a flat, matter-of-fact way that she is 31 and has been a carer now for over 11 years. By way of explanation, she says that she's been a carer for so long because "my donors have always tended to do much better than expected. Their recovery times have been impressive, and hardly any of them have been classified as 'agitated', even before fourth donation." The monotone in which she delivers what amounts to the essence of the novel gives you a chill as you realize Ishiguro is telling us a story about what life would be like for the donors--clones--created by society to supply organs for those in need.

Kathy is thinking of the life she and her fellows led in what seemed like a fine private school, Hailsham, in the English countryside. Gradually, and without any explicit description of who these children were or the future planned for them, let alone defining "the fourth donation" or "completing," Ishiguro leads you through Kathy's memories as gradually the sheer horror of it all comes in upon you.

The children are told fairly early in life that they will never be able to bear children. At one point, as a young teenager, Kathy dances to her favorite cassette, whose theme is "Baby, never let me go." She is clutching a pillow to herself, swaying with her eyes shut, when, suddenly opening them, she sees one of the school's guardians watching her and sobbing. Kathy notes that the woman had the "same look in her eyes she always had when she looked at us, like she was seeing something that gave her the creeps. Except this time there was something else, something extra in that look I couldn't fathom."

The children are encouraged to be creative--painting, drawing, sculpting--and each month a woman would come to select the most promising work to take to a supposed gallery. You don't learn why until further in the story, when Kathy and her fellow student, Tommy, find one of their old guardians from Hailsham in the hope of obtaining a "deferral," as they are in love. Miss Emily, now in a wheelchair, tries to explain why art was being collected from the children: "We took away your art," she explains, "because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all." And they learn that there are no "deferrals" in their life.

Ishiguro does plant hints as to the nature of the children at Hailsham. Kathy recalls that the guardians were really strict about smoking--"If we were being shown a picture of a famous writer or world leader, and they happened to have a cigarette in their hand, then the whole lesson would grind to a halt." When one of the guardians is asked whether she ever smoked, "Mrs. Lucy weighing each word carefully says, 'It's not good that Ismoked. It wasn't good for me so Istopped it. But what you must understand is that for you, all of you, it's much, much worse to smoke than it ever was for me.'"

In its way, Never Let Me Go reads like a mystery, Ishiguro dropping clues, details that join gradually until you know at last who done it. The story has a very real poignancy that goes considerably beyond its ambition. You come away caring about these "creatures," as one of the guardians refers to them.

And to lend a certain degree of horror to your reading, consider a recent story in the Washington Times: "Transplants from Living Rated Better than Deceased." In a study examining data from the Richmond-based United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) regarding pediatric liver transplants performed between 1987 and 2004, researchers discovered a failure rate of nearly 40 percent for transplants involving dead donors, compared with 27 percent in cases coming from living donors. Kazuo Ishiguro must have felt a genuine shudder seeing the potential for life resembling art--and looming, perhaps, on the not-too-distant horizon.

Cynthia Grenier writes the Mag Trade column for the Washington Times.

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