Never Let Me Go takes place in a dystopian United Kingdom, where disease has been eradicated. This apparent blessing has been accomplished by breeding human clones, who are forced to donate their vital organs when they reach early adulthood. Kathy H., a thirty-one-year-old clone who will soon make her first donation, narrates the novel.
Kathy is a “carer”: she acts as a nurse and a companion to clones that have started the donation process. She is proud of her skill as a carer, and her superiors seem to have recognized her success, as she is allowed to choose the donors she cares for, a special privilege. She often chooses to work with students from Hailsham, the boarding school she attended in her youth. It is implied that Hailsham was a very special school, and most clones did not have happy childhoods, as Kathy did.
Kathy often reminisces about her time at Hailsham. As a child, she mostly played with other girls, especially Ruth, her best friend and occasional rival. She recalls watching from the sports pavilion as one boy, Tommy, was bullied by his friends. The other girls laughed when Tommy threw a tantrum, but young Kathy was concerned that he would get mud on his favorite shirt. She tried to interfere with his tantrum but Tommy accidentally hit her in the face. He felt guilty immediately, and Kathy did not hold the incident against him.
A few days later, Tommy apologized to Kathy on their way to a medical check-up. Kathy was slightly embarrassed by his awkward behavior and the public setting of his apology, but she began to pay more attention to him. Because of his awkwardness, his short temper, and his bad work in art class, all of his peers reject Tommy, and they often play cruel pranks on him. Kathy is upset by this mean treatment, but Ruth believes he deserves it, since if he controlled his temper the bullies would lose interest.
Kathy digresses briefly, explaining that she pulled strings early in her career so that she could be Ruth’s carer. Although the two women had a tumultuous relationship in their youth, they enjoyed reminiscing about Hailsham together as Ruth recovered from her donations.
Kathy can trace Tommy’s status as a pariah to a single incident in art class when they were children. At Hailsham, art was an important part of student culture, and a person’s social status was often tied to the quality of their “creations.” One day, Tommy purposely painted a bad picture as a joke. The kind teacher, Miss Geraldine, did not understand that it was in jest and took Tommy’s effort seriously, resulting in an awkward moment that highlighted Tommy’s actual lack of art talent.
Eventually, Tommy stopped throwing tantrums and the other students stopped bullying him. Kathy asked him how he managed to turn things around for himself. It turned out that Tommy had a long talk with Miss Lucy, a brusque but honest guardian. She had told him that it was all right if he wasn’t creative. Kathy was shocked to hear this, and initially did not believe Tommy. When he recounted the conversation in more detail, he added that Miss Lucy seemed angry, and had mentioned that the students weren’t taught as much as they should be about donations. Kathy and Tommy were puzzled by this, since there was no apparent relationship between Tommy’s creativity and the donations.
At Hailsham, a mysterious woman known as Madame took the students’ best artwork to a place off-campus called the Gallery. The students were never allowed off campus, so they were not sure that the Gallery even exists, but it became a point of pride to have one’s work taken there. One time when Kathy was eight, the students swarmed around Madame to test their suspicions that she was afraid of them. She became very stiff and uncomfortable, and the incident hurt the students’ feelings.
Never Let Me Go is famous not only for its provocative plot, but also for its unusual mode of narration. Narrated in the first person, the novel uses the rhetoric of speech, as opposed to the literary register more common in fiction. Ishiguro takes pains to make Kathy’s voice seem spoken, as opposed to written. He accomplishes this primarily through a series of qualifications and modifications.
For example, he writes on page 21:
“Then it all stopped, not overnight, but rapidly enough. I was, as I say, watching the situation closely around then, so I saw the signs before most of the others. It started with a period––it might have been a month, maybe longer, when the pranks went on pretty steadily...”
Here, the appositive phrases (“as I say”) and the corrections (“not overnight,” “maybe longer”) lend Kathy’s narration an immediate, on-the-fly quality.
The narrative rhetoric is only one element of Ishiguro’s characterization of Kathy. As we learn in these chapters, she is bland, digressive, and excessively focused on details. For example, she recounts the children’s prank on Madame for multiple pages but gives little expository information about the organ donations or her relationship with Tommy.
While it makes sense for her not to dwell much on the donations––after all, Ishiguro’s main point is that in his universe, forced organ donations are quotidian and even banal––it makes less sense that she would not explain her romance with Tommy. Given that we can infer Ruth’s demise in the second chapter, it seems that Ishiguro isn’t worried about spoilers. That suggests that the withholding of important information is a characterization technique; it shows how emotionally distant Kathy has become, possibly as a coping mechanism.
Small hints in the text reveal that the novel is addressed to an audience of other clones. At one point, Kathy modestly acknowledges, “I don’t know how it was where you were” (11). Her descriptions frequently refer to the second person; for example, she says, “The first time you glimpse yourself through the eyes of a person like that, it’s a cold moment” (36). Through this stylistic technique, Ishiguro suggests that only someone with similar experiences can truly understand Kathy’s story, and that readers must make an effort to relate to her.