When I was in the first grade of elementary school I believed that a witch lived in the patch of woods beyond the soccer field. I can’t remember who first decided a witch lived there, but I can remember it was some twisted, vile creature who wanted to spirit us away into what at that time seemed no less than a haunted forest. Even if it was me who originally dreamed this up, and it could have been, I ended up believing it for a time and so did a number of others. We would go to the edge of the woods and peer into it, looking for flashes of movement, giddily telling each other that we’d seen something (just over there!), but that now it was gone.
This is what came to mind early on while reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, as its narrator Kathy reflects on her early youth at Hailsham boarding school. There was a period of time, she recalls, when the students were afraid of the woods at the top of the hill behind the school. A boy had run off into those woods, said a popular rumor, and when they found him he’d been bound to a tree and mutilated. A girl’s ghost was out there too, everyone knew. She’d been a student and climbed over the fence to see the forest, but no one would let her back into the school grounds, so she’d wandered off and died out there amongst the trees.
Kathy is a young woman piecing together her life up to the present, and the complicated relationship with the two best friends she spent it with, Tommy and Ruth. On some level their life growing up at Hailsham, under the care of the teacher/mentors they call guardians, is unremarkable. They attend classes each day, develop theories about the secret lives of their instructors, tease each other, have falling outs and eventually begin exploring their sexuality. In many ways this isn’t much different from the way I, and those I attended elementary, middle and high school with, grew up together. The difference, you see, is that soon after the students at Hailsham reach maturity they will be systematically harvested of their vital organs until they perish.
This is the world of Never Let Me Go, one which caused me a lingering sense of unease from early on and which only grew greater as the story progressed. Ishiguro drops continuous hints that something is amiss as Kathy, a self-described “carer,” begins to detail a childhood strictly limited to one location in rural England, to which food and goods such as small toys and music cassettes are trucked in, and where the students complete large numbers of artworks, the best of which are periodically taken away by a visitor known as Madame and never seen again.
As young adults, Kathy and Tommy track Madame down based solely on a rumor that if they can prove they’re in love then they might be given a deferral from “donating” for a number of years. Rumors and fancies such as this one direct the characters throughout their upbringing. They hold onto them in the same way I find myself, even now, holding onto hazy visions and half-formed ideas about my own future. What successes and failures might it contain? Where will it ultimately take me, and with who? Like plenty of other ESL teachers working abroad I’m still living my life one year at a time (a lifestyle I happen to love), but I have my ambitions and certain hopes for what lies ahead, and I hold these just close enough to cope with the vast uncertainty of the future.
The Hailsham students don’t have such uncertainty, not after the reason for their creation is revealed, and yet a form of wistful ignorance is exercised by some of them. Take Ruth, who after graduation from the boarding school travels to Norfolk hoping for a glimpse of her “possible”—the woman she may have been cloned from. That woman happens to be an office worker, the kind of job Ruth has long dreamed about having. When the woman turns out to look nothing like her, Ruth’s dream tears apart at the seams and the truth finally comes crashing down on her: she will not go on to be an office worker; she will not go on to be anything.
Throughout childhood and adolescence reality came leaking in at a steady rate, informing what was and wasn’t feasible for my own future, and such understandings still occur as I get older. In our culture we like to tell children that they can be anything they want to be, and while it’s a lovely sentiment, one that promotes hope and inspires many to see and strive for possibilities that they may not have otherwise, it isn’t necessarily true. Sorry, life will inform them later, there aren’t enough astronaut positions opening up—how about jumping on that fryer?
You can watch all the (warning: cynicism ahead) hopeless popstar wannabes on any set of American Idol-type auditions for an example of this. “This has been my dream my whole life! It’s the only thing I *sniffle* want in the world!” Some of these people are dead sure that they’re answering their life’s calling, but with a dismissive word from a celebrity judge those ambitions are shot down faster than you can say tear-streaked-delusional-seventeen-year-old. Maybe producers consider this “good television” because deep down a lot of people feel better about their own unfulfilled dreams when they see others having their’s quashed.
Still, we can continue to aspire and work dedicatedly towards our goals, even in the face of doubt. For Kathy, Ruth and Tommy there comes a time, all too early, when that is no longer possible. They will give up their lives to become donors, and do it without rebellion or cries of revolution, for they intrinsically understand that this is the purpose of their creation. For Kathy, the past becomes the only thing to hold onto and she explores it meticulously. She doesn’t glorify it, but she finds things to cherish within the story of her life. Memories of growing up at Hailsham are forever hers.
It’s easy to look back on the past with nostalgia, no matter how bland it may have seemed at the time, and long for what we may think of as a simpler age, for its innocence and ignorance. Some of my memories seem to have stuck at random, things I would never have imagined I would hold onto or value at all, and yet I do. So much from my early years of elementary school has faded away, but looking out for glimpses of the witch that we were sure lived in the woods has remained. Even though that land was cleared and replaced with an artificial pond well over a decade ago, I have my recollection, however faint, of the delightful chill that came from knowing it was a haunted place. Transported by Ishiguro’s frank and honest prose, I couldn’t help but find myself standing with Kathy in an empty field, watching wind-blown garbage caught against a wire fence, and as she imagined, allowing herself just a small moment of fancy, that all the lost odds and ends from her past had been collected there. When she was a child, she knew the forest was haunted too.
Kathy’s organs will soon be harvested. She doesn’t have a future, and her entire life, every possibility it could have held, has already occurred. She is too exhausted and resigned to her fate to do anything other than submit to her donations. It gives me an appreciation for what lies before me at this moment in time, and for an instant I can see all the branching paths and potential that are mine to explore, spreading out from the present to parts unknown. I don’t have to dwell on the past like Kathy because I still have the opportunity to keep writing new chapters into my own, and hopefully will for a long time to come.
Being able to look forward as freely as looking back is something that is easy to take for granted, and if we’re lucky it’s as natural as breathing. Many, however, aren’t nearly so fortunate. There is a stark contrast between my situation and that of those in the world who foresee their futures being cut short by war, disease, corruption, or as Ishiguro warns us, social and political systems that ultimately deny a certain group of people their humanity. That simple understanding is something of which to never let go.
Pages: 288 FoA pages: 15,931