By Kazuo Ishiguro
Published by Vintage Books
on August 31, 2010
Hailsham seems like a pleasant English boarding school, far from the influences of the city. Its students are well tended and supported, trained in art and literature, and become just the sort of people the world wants them to be. But, curiously, they are taught nothing of the outside world and are allowed little contact with it.
Within the grounds of Hailsham, Kathy grows from schoolgirl to young woman, but it's only when she and her friends Ruth and Tommy leave the safe grounds of the school (as they always knew they would) that they realize the full truth of what Hailsham is.
I wanted to read this book for quite a while, but the timing never felt quite right. I have been in the mood for lighter fare lately, and while this book intrigued me, I wasn’t ready for something serious. Three days ago, I felt that it was time and I was ready to dive into this book, and I’m very glad that I did.
Be warned – There are spoilers in this review. If you don’t want to know the plot details, don’t read any further, because I don’t think I can write too much about this book without talking about the story.
I was very emotionally involved in this book. The characters drew me in and I became very attached to them. I’ve never read any of Ishiguro’s novels, but I would certainly like to read more of his work.
The story is told by Kathy, in a first-person narrative, but in flashback-style as she reveals memories of her time at Hailsham. I didn’t know anything about this novel, not even that it was science-fiction. I just knew that Ishiguro was an author I’d wanted to read for a while, and that this book took place, at least partially, in a boarding school, and I’ve mentioned before that I love reading stories that take place in boarding schools.
Kathy is a keen observer of the other students at Hailsham, and through her memories, we learn not just about Kathy, but about Ruth and Tommy as well. It began to seem strange to me that the students’ families were never mentioned, and that they didn’t seem to know anything about the world beyond the grounds of the school. It was a major bombshell moment for me when one of the teachers speaks to the students about their purpose: they exist solely for the purpose of donating their organs to people in the outside world. While this was a shock for me, the students seemed to have already been aware of this, and in fact seemed to have accepted it.
While at Hailsham, the teachers, known as guardians, encouraged the students to be creative through art and poetry. A woman named Madame shows up occasionally to take the students’ art that has been set aside by the guardians. Art proves to be difficult for Tommy, who, in their younger years, is often the target of jokes and pranks by other students. However, he and Kathy develop a friendship.
Kathy and Ruth become close friends as well, but it’s clear that Ruth is the dominating personality of the group, the leader. Kathy does not stand up to Ruth much, and as they grow up, Ruth and Tommy become involved in a relationship and the three of them are close friends.
After their time at Hailsham is up, they move to a place known as The Cottages, where they live with a group of people a couple years older than them, from other schools. The students live at The Cottages until the time that they start to work as carers (looking after donors), which they do until they become donors themselves. Kathy, Ruth and Tommy learn about other Hailsham students who became donors and completed (died after a donation). It’s also revealed that they were all cloned, copied from someone in the real world. The person someone is modelled after is called a possible, and there are moments where both Ruth and Kathy seem preoccupied with finding their possibles in the real world. Kathy reveals that it is suspected that despite their hopes, they are modelled after ‘rubbish’ – drug addicts, prostitutes, convicts.
As the reality of their fates became clear, I really felt for Kathy, Ruth and Tommy. It was so profoundly sad to me, but they all seemed to have accepted it. They’d known their entire lives that this was their purpose and that they were different from people oustide of Hailsham.
The third part of the novel takes place after The Cottages, when Kathy has become a carer, and Ruth and Tommy have become donors. Kathy ends up as Ruth’s carer, and they find Tommy and begin to renew their friendship. Eventually, Ruth confesses to having kept Kathy and Tommy from being a couple, and in an effort to right things, gives them Madame’s address, asking them to promise that Kathy will become Tommy’s carer and they will track her down and get a deferral. There have been rumours that couples who are in love can request to defer their donations, if they can demonstrate that they love each other. Tommy believes that Madame collected their art because she could use it to see whether they are in love. To this end, he begins to prepare artwork to show Madame.
Eventually, Ruth completes, and Tommy and Kathy begin a relationship after she becomes his carer. They locate Madame and find that she now lives with Hailsham’s former mistress, the school having closed years before.
This is where the full truth is revealed to them. Hailsham, and other schools like it, was a large experiment to demonstrate that the students had souls and were, despite their purpose and means of coming into being, human. Their artwork was not collected to read their souls but rather to demonstrate to the world at large that they had souls at all. Eventually, the donations that kept Hailsham operating began to disappear, as the world didn’t want to see the students as humans. As the former mistress puts it, the public’sconcern was not for the welfare of the students, but rather that if and when the time came, there would be organs for their children, spouses, parents. We learn that other clones, not fortunate enough to be at Hailsham, are not treated well.
As they leave, Tommy becomes enraged. Kathy, however, seems to have accepted it all. As Tommy receives notice of his third donation, he tells Kathy that he doesn’t want her to be his carer for this one. They seem to both understand that this will likely be his final donation. Things end with Tommy completing, and Kathy receiving notice that her first donation will take place shortly. There is no attempt to rebel or to avoid the fate that they all know is coming.
This was a great book but it was so sad. I was expecting a coming of age story, which, I suppose, this still was, but I was not expecting the science-fiction aspect, which was a pleasant surprise. It was easy to read, which was another surprise. I don’t know why, but I was expecting Ishiguro’s writing to be difficult to read.
Obviously the novel raises some questions on ethics and morals and made me think about doing things just because we are scientifically able, without considering whether we morally should. If the cure for cancer necessitates cloning humans for their organs, should we do it? Heavy stuff but really worth reading, and thinking about.
I would love to hear from someone else who’s read this book. I kept thinking about it after I finished it, and I strongly recommend it.