Never Let Me Go is a 2005 novel written by British author Kazuo Ishiguro, winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature. The novel was shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize, for the 2006 Arthur C. Clarke Award and for the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award. Time magazine named it the best novel of 2005 and included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
The novel is about a woman named Kathy, and most of the story revolves around her childhood memories. Kathy and her friends Ruth and Tommy grow up at Hailsham, which seems to be an idyllic boarding school in England. In her memories from Hailsham, Kathy describes happy scenes of boys and girls growing up together, and especially her friendship with Ruth and Tommy. But she describes other scenes as well: of discord and misunderstanding that hint at a dark secret behind Hailsham’s nurturing facade. It is later revealed that the children cared for at Hailsham are actually clones who were created for the purpose of donating organs when they reach adulthood.
The novel is in many ways an exploration of what defines a human being. As Kathy and the others realize they are clones made from other people, they start questioning their identity, even starting to doubt they are human.
In the novel, creativity is directly related to being perceived as human. As clones, Hailsham students are forced to produce artwork. Art is viewed as the extension of one’s soul, so the clones’s artwork is supposed to prove their humanity. Most people view these students as soulless creatures that are incapable of human emotion, but the guardians at Hailsham believe that when the students are “reared in humane, cultivated environments, it is possible for them to grow up as sensitive as any ordinary human being.” Thus, the guardians encourage their students to create their own art and be moved by that of others, in order to prove their capacity for experiencing a wide range of human sentiment.
However, not all students are capable of producing adequate art—some simply do not have the talent. For example, Tommy struggles with his creativity at Hailsam, which makes the other students bully him, but later on in life he is able to draw unique, interesting paintings. This is of profound significance; because even though creativity is an important human trait, it is not a defining one. Some people are less artistically inclined by nature, so one cannot claim creativity as a proof of humanity.
Another important theme in the novel is that of memories. Memories are also a defining human trait, especially in connection with personal identity. We define ourselves through our memories. Kathy copes with the losses in her life by turning to memories of the past. She preserves the memory of Hailsham long after it has closed, just as she preserves her memories of Tommy and Ruth long after their deaths. Kathy’s memories are her way of holding onto everyone and everything she has lost.
However, Kathy’s memory is also fragmented and somewhat incomplete. Her narrative is a process of recovery and an attempt to make sense of her memories. She admits to forgetting and misremembering details, showing that memory is just as fragile as it is powerful. If memories is what defines a human being, then existence is quite elusive.
As we can see, both creativity and memory are insufficient measurements of humanity. But what is the true defining feature of a human being? The answer is in the title of the novel: ”never let me go”. The novel’s title reflects a deeply human need to hold onto, and be held by, loved ones. Emotional attachment is the most definitive sign of humanity, and that is also what the novel is actually about. Never Let Me Go may be set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, but it is not mainly about the problems of society, the setting is simply a backdrop for the true story. And the true story is about friendship and love. The plot revolves around the relationship between Kathy, Ruth and Tommy. In their close but complicated friendship, we see their true humanity.
This is the profound message of the novel: even when the world is ending and society is in chaos, we will still be human beings, doing what human beings are meant to do: love each other.