Never Let Me Go tranquilly opens with thirty-one-year-old Kathy H., a “carer” for “donors” who will mysteriously “complete,” that is, die, who is about to become a donor herself. Kathy seizes this moment to relate her apparently idyllic childhood at the boarding school of Hailsham, England. In the polite, reserved tone typical of Ishiguro’s first-person narrators, Kathy tells of her youth and that of her friends, cocky Ruth and misfit Tommy, who interact with a cast of fellow pupils at this apparently everyday upscale British institution. The reader of Never Let Me Go quickly realizes that there is a dark mystery at the root of Kathy’s recollection. Soon, the reader learns that Kathy lives in a dystopian alternate world where clones are raised to be harvested for their organs until they “complete” (die), generally after their fourth “donation.” The casual use of these euphemistic terms for barbarous acts is a strong motif of the novel.
The novel has a particularly haunting quality because Kathy, like all of her peers, quietly accepts the strange life for which they are being groomed. The title refers to Kathy’s favorite song at Hailsham. It is sung by a fictional woman singer, whom Kathy imagines is tightly holding on to her baby—a poignant fantasy, as all clones are infertile.
After graduating from Hailsham, Kathy and some of her peers are moved to the Cottages, where they live somewhat aimless lives. Ruth and Tommy become lovers while Kathy, who also loves Tommy, looks on. Their destiny catches up with them when “donations” of organs begin. Kathy cares for Ruth, a “donor,” who “completes” (dies). With Tommy next in line, he and Kathy realize their love and visit their former teacher, Madame, and Miss Emily, the headmistress of Hailsham. Miss Emily reveals the truth behind the cloning program. She also states that Hailsham was closed in favor of functional breeding centers that openly disregard a clone’s humanity. After Tommy dies, Kathy drives to Norfolk, forlornly gazing at the North Sea with a quiet, sad acceptance of her fate.
The plot may appear too far-fetched to be happening in late 1990’s England, when the novel takes place. However, read as a dystopian extrapolation of a society that grooms some of its members to serve others to their death, the novel’s theme is far less impossible. Kathy and her peers act with a quiet sense of duty. They do so in the same way that butler Stevens served Nazi-sympathizing Lord Darlington in The Remains of the Day or other Ishiguro characters served Japanese militarism. In letting Kathy tell of her dystopian world, Never Let Me Go emerges as a poignant tale of the dangers of acquiescence and the high cost of lives wasted nobly for the wrong cause.