Monday, 20 October 2014

Never Let Me Go / Kazuo Ishiguro

4 out of 5 stars
As a child, Kathy – now thirty-one years old – lived at Hailsham, a private school in the scenic English countryside where the children were sheltered from the outside world, brought up to believe that they were special and that their well-being was crucial not only for themselves but for the society they would eventually enter. Kathy had long ago put this idyllic past behind her, but when two of her Hailsham friends come back into her life, she stops resisting the pull of memory.

And so, as her friendship with Ruth is rekindled, and as the feelings that long ago fueled her adolescent crush on Tommy begin to deepen into love, Kathy recalls their years at Hailsham. She describes happy scenes of boys and girls growing up together, unperturbed – even comforted – by their isolation. But she describes other scenes as well: of discord and misunderstanding that hint at a dark secret behind Hailsham’s nurturing facade. With the dawning clarity of hindsight, the three friends are compelled to face the truth about their childhood–and about their lives now.

I went to a film screening of the National Theatre of Great Britain’s performance of Frankenstein last week and was forcibly reminded of this book. Both works explore the nature of humanity and our dabbling in the creation of life. In Frankenstein, the creator abandons his creature, offering no guidance or support and then must face his angry creation. In Never Let Me Go, clones are raised as if they are at a posh boarding school, learning art, literature, and sciences, things they will never actually have opportunity to use. Which is worse, really, to leave the created being alone and uneducated, without guidance, or to raise them, educate them, allow them to hope & dream, and then exploit them?

Both works of fiction start with acts of creation that cause moral dilemmas. What do you do with a lonely, hideous re-animated corpse? What do you do with hundreds of clones being reared to supply organs to “real people”? How do we draw the line between “real” and “fake” people? Both Frankenstein’s monster and the cloned children feel real emotions and are capable of reasoning, but are considered on “the other side” of the divide, as exploitable human creations. Apparently, one needs to be conceived during sexual congress in order to qualify as truly human.

During my reading of NLMG, I kept wondering, would children without parents and families really be this passive? How much of the human drive to compete, to learn, to shape your own life, is part of the social construct we grow up in, and how much is genetically programmed into us? Without a family to give examples of what adults can do, would we all be stuck in the teenage gossipy, angst-ridden stage forever, as Kath, Tommy and Ruth seem to be?

As far as I know, no one ever argued that Dolly, the cloned sheep, was not a sheep. Could it truly be argued that clones from human cells were not human? It might be easier to raise the whole human body, rather than growing separate organs in a laboratory, but easier is not necessarily better. Almost 200 years after the publication of Frankenstein, we are still exploring these ideas and no hard and fast conclusions have been achieved yet.

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