Books: Living on Borrowed Time

Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go combines sci-fi, existential tragedy and a big fat surprise

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Whatever else the internet has done for or to the English language, it has popularized a very useful phrase that I will now invoke: spoiler alert. If you want to get the full effect of Kazuo Ishiguro's chilling, intensely moving novel Never Let Me Go (Knopf; 288 pages), read no further than the end of this paragraph. Never Let Me Go is the story of three people--Kathy, Tommy and Ruth--who at first appear to be ordinary children attending an exclusive and indefinably creepy but otherwise ordinary English boarding school. The only other thing you need to know is that the book is a page turner and a heartbreaker, a tour de force of knotted tension and buried anguish. Now seriously, no kidding, stop here.

About a quarter of the way through the novel the reader learns, with a queasy, freezing, absolutely genuine shock, that Never Let Me Go is set in an alternate version of England where the government raises cloned human beings in order to harvest their vital organs for transplant. Although they don't know this when we first meet them, Kathy, Tommy and Ruth are clones, born only to grow up and be taken apart piecemeal.

This isn't a science-fiction extravaganza. Ishiguro wisely keeps the focus tight and close on everyday life. He follows the trio's feuds, their adolescent trysts (eventually they form a classic love triangle), their hopes and their slow awakening to and acceptance of the gruesome sacrifice that will be expected of them. ("After all, it's what we're supposed to be doing, isn't it?" says Ruth.) Cut off from the world, the children become pathetically obsessed with anything that might give them a tiny taste of what life is like for normal people. Ruth's most deeply held fantasy is to work in an office.

Never Let Me Go could easily be mistaken for a political novel or a futuristic thriller, but at its dark heart it's an existential fable about people trying to wring some happiness out of life before the lights go out. Because death comes for all of us, and too soon: the ending that spoils everything. --By Lev Grossman