NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro (Knopf), 263 pages, $34.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
It takes a few pages to figure out why Never Let Me Go's narrator sounds so oddly flat. It's as if Kathy H. has had the soul sucked out of her.
But she hasn't - she may have had no soul in the first place. She's one of a community of clones bred, educated and controlled by mostly unseen forces.
Scary, yes, because Kazuo Ishiguro's novel isn't really futuristic fiction - it's set in the mid-90s. But it's not a horror novel either, mainly because the kids are so, well, normal. We meet Kathy H. and her school chums as they're being educated at Hailsham, a remote English boarding school that at first comes across as a coed Eton. The boys play football, the girls have high-school-type friendships and fight over boys (Kathy H. has a thing for Tommy), but there's a tinge of mystery to the whole thing.
Why is one of the teachers suggesting that something's being kept from the students? Who is the mysterious Madame who occasionally visits the campus and walks away with the students' best art?
As the story unfolds, more information about the experiment is revealed. After graduation, the clones will move into the Cottages. They'll make a series of "donations" in specially designed hospitals, assisted by their peers, who take on the role of carer until they're called on to sacrifice their bodies, too.
Kathy H. and her friends do have real yearnings - for sex, to meet their "models," for a real future. They're human enough to entertain the idea that there's a way to avoid the inevitable.
Even with its weirdly matter-of-fact tone, this is an unbearably sad story. It wouldn't have worked if the writer hadn't had amazing discipline and craft, and Ishiguro's got both.
Compelling and original fiction.