Never Let Me Go (2005) is a novel by British author Kazuo Ishiguro. It was shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize (an award Ishiguro had previously won in 1989 for The Remains of the Day), for the 2006 Arthur C. Clarke Award and for the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award. Time magazine named it the best fiction novel of 2005 and included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. It also received an ALA Alex Award in 2006.
The novel describes the childhood of a Kathy H., a young woman of 31, focusing at first on her youth at an unusual boarding school and eventually, her adult life. The story takes place in a dystopian Britain, in which human beings are cloned to provide donor organs for transplants. Kathy and her classmates have been created to be donors, though the adult Kathy is temporarily working as a “carer,” someone who supports and comforts donors as they are made to give up their organs and, eventually, submit to death. As in Ishiguro’s other works, the truth of the matter is made clear only gradually, via veiled but suggestive language and situations.
The novel is divided in three parts, chronicling the three phases of the lives of its main characters.
The first part is set at Hailsham, a boarding school where the children are brought up and educated. The teachers there mysteriously encourage the students to produce various forms of art. The best works are chosen by a woman known only as Madame and are said to be collected in a gallery. That Hailsham is not a normal school is also indicated by the emphasis on frequent medical checks and other odd details.
While the students of Hailsham are often cliquey, capricious and cruel, the three main characters — Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy — develop a stable friendship during this time. Kathy herself seems to have resigned herself to being an observer of other people, and the choices they make, instead of making her own choices, seemingly a naive and passive-aggressive type of “person”. She often takes the role of the peacemaker in the clique, especially between Tommy and Ruth. Tommy is an isolated boy who has difficulty in relating to others and is often the target of bullies, while Ruth is an extrovert with strong opinions.
In the second part, the characters, now young adults, move to the “Cottages”, residential complexes where they start to have contacts with the external world and they are relatively free to do what they want. A romantic relationship develops between Ruth and Tommy, while Kathy explores her sexuality but without forming any stable connections. While at the Cottages, they travel to Norfolk. The third part describes Tommy’s and Ruth’s becoming donors and Kathy’s becoming a carer. Kathy cares for Ruth and then, after Ruth “completes” (a euphemism for death), Kathy takes care of Tommy. Before her death, Ruth expresses regret over coming between Kathy and Tommy, and urges them to pursue a relationship with one another, and to seek to defer their donations based on their love. Encouraged by Ruth’s last wishes, Kathy and Tommy visit Madame, where they also meet their old headmistress, Miss Emily. During this visit, they learn why artistic production had always been emphasized at Hailsham. They also learn that deferring their donations is impossible, as this has been a rumour among clones for many years. The clones learn that Hailsham in general was an experiment, an effort to improve the conditions for clones and perhaps alter the attitudes of society, which prefers to view the clones merely as non-human sources of organs. The novel ends, after the death of Tommy, on a note of resignation, as Kathy accepts her own inevitable fate as a donor and her eventual “completion.” Although the novel does not end kindly, Ishiguro shows the reader the grim reality of Kathy’s life, and how ignorant acceptance can lead to downfall.
The novel’s title comes from a song on an American cassette tape called Songs After Dark by fictional singer Judy Bridgewater. Kathy buys the tape during a swap meet-type event at Hailsham. Hearing it as a mother’s plea to her baby, Kathy on many occasions dances while holding her pillow and singing the chorus: “Baby, never let me go.” On one occasion, while she is dancing and singing, she notices Madame watching her and crying. At this time Kathy does not understand the significance of the event. Many years later, during the final confrontation between Kathy, Tommy, and Madame, she asks Madame about her tears. Madame replies that the image she had seen was of a little girl facing the new world that was emerging, an efficient but cruel world, and asking the old world not to let her go.