A very strange and heartbreaking novel. Strange because it defies genre. It is sort of an amalgam of Gothic-Science Fiction - Coming of Age - Literary. Heartbreaking because we watch the characters in this story grow from childhood to early adulthood knowing full well what’s in store for them. It is impossible to write about this wonderful book without dropping some spoilers and interestingly enough, the back cover blurb does not give the reader even one clue as to the true nature of this story.
The story revolves around three main characters: Kathy, Ruth and Tommy. The story is told from Kathy’s point of view as an adult looking back over their lives while they attended a special boarding school called Hailsham, which is, for all intents and purposes, a special school for children whose destiny is to grow up to be “donors”. They are clones, brought into the world for the sole purpose for organ harvesting - only in their early years, they have no clue that this is their ultimate fate. Hailsham’s focus on their students is to keep them as healthy as possible and to fill them with knowledge and culture - particularly art - and they are none the wiser about their future. Kathy is the strong willed one, free-spirited and kind. Ruth, an extrovert, opinionated, and usually the center of social activity around the boarding school. Tommy is the moron, who’s prone to rages, is uncreative and often the butt of everyone’s jokes and pranks. The three of them are close and will remain close throughout their lives. Their life at the boarding school is not unlike any other child of privilege and if it were not for one of their “guardians” - Miss Lucy - they wouldn’t have been aware of their ultimate fate to eventually become “donors”.
The next section of the novel finds the three at a place called “The Cottage” and they are now in their teenage years. Ruth and Tommy - together since their early years - are still a couple and Kathy beings the normal sexual exploration most teenage girls do at that age. Their experience at “The Cottage” is much different than at Hailsham. All three are now well aware of who they are and what the future lies in store for them. Strangely, both Kathy and Tommy seem to be resigned to their destiny while for Ruth it is a life altering experience which literally crushes her. She tells them of a “rumor” that their kind are often given “deferrals” if they can prove that they are truly in love with someone - which buys them an extra three years at most before the “donations” begin. This section of the novel deals with the heavy existential questions about their existence and ultimate fate.
The narrative then switches back to Kathy as an adult - now a “carer”, who is looking after Ruth after her second “donation”. It is only a matter of time before she “completes”. It is Ruth who insists that Kathy become Tommy’s “carer”, that it would only be the natural thing for her to do - as well as get together with Tommy and seek the “deferral” they had heard about over all those years. After Ruth “completes”, Kathy indeed does seek out Tommy at one of the donor centers and becomes his carer as he goes through three grueling “donations”. They become closer - in essence a couple - and seek out their old Hailsham “guardians” with the hopes of obtaining this “deferral”. What follows is nothing short of heartbreaking.
What makes this novel so disturbing is that Kathy’s “voice” drapes a tragic tone over the entire story. The reader is given clues as to what is in store for them little by little as Kathy tells the story of their lives together. Their closeness, their memories, their childhood, their loves, triumphs, failures, deep rooted feelings about life - and the more she does so, the more horrific this story becomes. The reader can’t help be gripped by the heartstrings as they slowly realize what the ultimate purpose of these characters lives are. The one question that begs to be asked is why don’t they just run away, flee, live their lives in peace somewhere far away? Why are they so resigned to their fate? Once the reader begins to think about these characters lives - their childhood dreams, their hopes and aspirations, it only becomes that much more gut wrenching to know what awaits them.
Ishiguro does not play up the clone angle at all and it is firmly in the background. It’s “Science Fiction” is vague, since the story is not at all about the science of cloning. It is about human beings - whether they are clones or not. It is a morality tale that raises very significant questions about the nature of man and his desire to live forever. If offered the chance to be cured of the world’s most horrible diseases through such a program depicted in this novel, would he do it? But ultimately, the story is about all of us. For we too are aware at an early age that we will eventually die and the important question raised here is whether or not we find meaning in our lives, fulfillment, happiness, joy, creativity, between the beginning and the end.
I honestly believe that this novel has the potential of being a life-altering book if these questions are contemplated at any length by the reader. It is one of the more profound and thought provoking novels I’ve read in a very long time. A truly original work. A must read.