Kathy H. is a 31-year-old carer in England in the late 1990s. She’s been so for eleven years, an unusual amount of time in her employment, which may be due to her prowess in her job; “Hardly any of them [her clients] have been classified as ‘agitated’,” she notes proudly. So good is she that recently she has been permitted to choose her clients, allowing her to reconnect with school friends Tommy and Ruth.
If you’ve seen the movie, or know the slightest about this almost unbearable story, you’ll know that Kathy and her friends are donors, clones raised to provide organs. From the present, Kathy narrates her childhood and adolescence at Hailsham, a school, estate and mansion that evokes many from English literature. There the children spend their days practicing art and creativity, while getting up to the normal things that kids do in the schoolyard: falling in love, making friends, bullying each other, imagining their futures. Like many schools, rumours abound, such as why every now and then a woman from outside the school known as Madame comes to take some of their art away; for her “Gallery”, the students think. Kathy is a curious narrator. She is careful to a fault, drawing attention to her curation of the narrative. Is she afraid of not getting it right, or of revealing the truth? It’s a voice as constrained as Offred’s in The Handmaid’s Tale.
I think Never Let Me Go is an abolitionist novel, and it is one of the bleakest and most potent depictions of a carceral system I can think of committed to paper. There are few fences. Instead, power is wielded through the strategic control of information, one of the three fundamental forms of dominion identified by David Graeber and David Wengrow in The Dawn Of Everything. One of the teachers at Hailsham, suffering from a guilty conscience, tells the students that they have “been told and not told”. They understand well enough their fate, but get only glimpses of the structure that will send them to it. Conspiracies and rumours flourish in such a system; trust that that also is by design, for how better to stop people trying to break out of a fence than to make it an invisible, slippery thing that may or may not actually be there? It’s a book that makes you think of slavery, detention of migrants, labour exploitation, the treatment of animals (perhaps the closest metaphor for the students of Hailsham is free-range hens).
The system also runs on the exploitation of empathy. The schoolyard, seemingly also by design, fosters intense relationships that never progress beyond a certain suspended adolescence. Or maybe progress is the wrong word, because perhaps, the novel poses, we actually regress as we age. What better people to shepherd the donors to their deaths, chillingly known as “completing” in the novel?
What then of the romance (or romances) that lie inside Never Let Me Go? They are certainly not by the by. They are achingly told, full of life and humanity. They make the most of their time, as people do. They’re even happy, but they’re not free. Kathy’s story is a quiet and simple plea to have their humanity recognised; it’s bitterness is that in our world, the real world, we fail over and over again to do the same for others.
Gay rating: 1/5 for a brief mention of queer relationships, known as “umbrella sex” at Hailsham.