This book reached me in a way I hadn’t expected it to when I first began reading, and I think it is a testament to how well Ishiguro crafts his alternate society that it rings of the truth of human nature and experience. I chose to discuss the notions of possession and ownership well before I had finished the book, largely because of an early scene where a younger Kathy frets that Tommy will ruin his favorite shirt with mud during one of his tantrums. That was the moment of the book that first resonated with me; it is a feeling I deeply understand. It was the spark of a truth I’ve known for a long time: when one has very little, it is the little things that become precious. It is apparently unique among Kathy’s circle—the others are concerned more with watching Tommy’s tantrums than what he would feel if he lost something precious to him. Kathy is deeply empathetic, as we see again and again as she faces her own loss and the loss of others. Indeed, up to and including the title, this book is very much concerned with having, owning, possessing, losing, and letting go of things as well as people.
Since the novel is structured into three parts it seems natural to structure the discussion into three parts: Hailsham, Cottages, and adulthood (although in the novel there is considerable overlap as Kathy jumps around in her memory to tell her story). From the moment Kathy introduces herself, and begins to immediately describe the ownership of a car and a bedsit that being a carer affords her, we see that Kathy’s pride in what she owns, something that is evident even in her in childhood. She assumes that others feel the same way about their possessions, and with Tommy that is a safe assumption, but Ruth seems to be quite different, as I will explore below.
With the Exchanges and the Sales of Kathy’s childhood, we see immediately that at Hailsham the children’s unique notion of possession is deeply ingrained within the school’s institutional processes. The children create art, for which they are given highly-prized tokens, which they in turn exchange for art produced by other children. This art is used to decorate their personal space, and thereby they use the creations of others to amass, as Kathy says on p. 16, “a collection of personal possessions”. Even she can see that “being dependent on each other to produce the stuff that might become your private treasures—that’s bound to do things to your relationships” (16). If one defines oneself through the creations of others in a never-ending cycle of production and (literal) exchanges, then one is going to be more likely to see the group itself as a part of one’s identity—and so it is with the kids at Hailsham. This sense must only be heightened by the fact that the best of their work is unavailable to their peers, as it is taken by Madame to what even she refers to throughout the book as her gallery. The Sales are the other manner by which the students can get personal items. The book seems to allude that the Sales are made up largely by the donations of things people from the outside world no longer have use of; as the cliché goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
It is at a Sale at Hailsham that Kathy finds and loses her beloved tape featuring the song “Never Let Me Go”. Whereas Kathy shows herself to be concerned with her tape, Tommy’s shirt, Ruth’s pencil box—tangible objects with ownership attachments—when Kathy’s tape goes missing we begin to see a glimpse of how Ruth sees possession of objects. She works tirelessly to try to find the tape, even though it’s not her own. Kathy intimates that Ruth sees the return of the tape as a way to “keep” Kathy close to her, despite a falling-out prior to the loss of the tape. She understands that the tape is important to Kathy, but does not value possessions in the same way that Kathy does. She finally gets a tape for Kathy, but it is not the same one, and Ruth cannot understand why it would make a difference. For Kathy, her identity is wrapped up in the things that she owns that are special to her. For Ruth, it is the people she can keep close to her that define who she is. This seems unsurprising in a world where these students, viewed by society at large as throw-away people whose value is in their vital organs, are more or less considered objects themselves. Ruth shows herself to be more possessive of people, memories, stories, and time. She wants to be a store of knowledge, and she is most hurt when Kathy doubts or disputes the stories she tells. Ruth doesn’t seem to be interested in the pencil box itself. Instead, it is important to her because she is able to use it to pretend to have a relationship with the favored Miss Geraldine. When Kathy joins in on this play with her, it seems to reinforce their friendship. Ruth values the acceptance of others, which becomes very clear as the trio enters the Cottages.
In the Cottages, Ruth is the one who reaches out to the veterans in an attempt to create camaraderie with them. In this way, according to Kathy, she feels that she is making a way in for the entire Hailsham group. Ruth continues to try to connect by bringing people into her circle—Kathy continues to define herself by the things she acquired at Hailsham. Ruth throws her “collection” of Hailsham items out, once again in an attempt to fit in with the new members of their group and increase her number of relationships. Ruth also seems to be craving time; the whole search for her “possible” and her reflected dreams of working in an office are all markers of a desire for a future she can never have.
Kathy and Tommy, on the other hand, cling to the memory of an object, the cassette tape, so much so that they go in search of it in Norfolk, which has taken on the legend among them as being a place where lost things end up. Yet a change seems to be evolving in Kathy, as she feels disappointment upon finding the tape. What she valued from the excursion with Tommy was being with him, and basking in his having spent time thinking about her loss, and wanting to make it right for her. It is this incident that reveals a love and compatibility that has grown since their childhood. Yet Kathy departs for her career as a carer, leaving her childhood friends behind.
At the end of her life, Ruth confesses that she had known for much of her life that Kathy and Tommy were in love and were supposed to be together, but was afraid that if she didn’t conspire to keep them apart that they would leave her behind. She begs them to seek the rumored “true love” deferment, and after her death Tommy and Kathy begin to explore the possibility. If owning time was Ruth’s goal, it would seem she succeeded not in gaining a future but in robbing Kathy and Tommy of a life together. To pursue that life, they go to Madame’s house, and yet again, the emphasis is on objects—those long-ago creations. Tommy brings a sketchbook of pictures, as he feels that his and Kathy’s creations will somehow express their unique connection. They are told that no such deferment exists by Madame and Miss Emily, but Miss Emily insists that she gave them something that could never be taken away: their childhood at Hailsham. I would argue that, as it would seem that Ruth’s time with Tommy took away from Kathy’s time, so the hard truth of the lives of the students robbed some of the joy from their memories and from their final days (although Kathy still talks of a desire to recall those days once she becomes a donor and has time to rest).
One remark that Miss Emily makes to Tommy and Kathy in the final scenes of the novel struck me as particularly interesting, and makes for a nice conclusion. She tells them that the world was “requiring students to donate” (p. 263), yet the statement itself is a contradiction. Something required is not freely given without hope of recompense, as a donation is. The students—clones—are things, objects to be owned. They are individually precious to those to whom they belong, but are conditioned to see themselves as possessed by a larger destiny that they cannot control. In the end, Tommy cannot give himself to Kathy, because he has already been given away.
- 1500 words is not enough! I have a lot of moments that support my thoughts, including Ruth inventing a horse to bond with Kathy (p. 46), Ruth’s revelation that Keffers doesn’t pretend that her collection is special (as the system at Hailsham implied) (p. 130), Kathy’s description of the lamps in her bedsit (p. 208), and the kids at Hailsham as recalled by the clown with the balloons (p. 213). So if you want more support of ideas, ask me!
- It seemed to me that a lot of the language of the story was juvenile/child-like, particularly in the discussion of relationships (although I know we plan to talk sex later in the week, so NO SEX TALK—I deliberately avoided it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Baby Friday is a part-time high school Spanish teacher and a full-time Monster. Originally from South Carolina, she moved to Georgia a while back and has been working hard to get back to SC since then. She uses her Masters thesis research into feminist film theory to annoy her friends, and her bottomless well of trivia to annoy anyone within earshot. She can usually be found at home with her Monster-husband teacherman and their dogs: Girl One, Handsomedog, and Skeledog. She is currently being ignored by her students.
- Tomorrow, DAFS WILL BE talkin bout TIME, IN multiple ways!
- Wednesday, ihavetoreturntovideotapes is TALKIN ABOUT something. Hasn’tEMAILED ME THE TOPIC YET, but I think WE CAN ALL AGREE, it’s probably SOMETHING!
- Thursday, Godsauce is GONNA GET ALL sexy on us and talk ABOUT THAT SEX so earmuffs UP.
- Finally, ON FRIDAY, I’ll (this is AN AMERICAN PATRIOT now, by the WAY) wrap THINGS up with SOME FINAL thoughts and AN OPEN forum FOR FURTHER discussion SO BE SURE to keep F5ING.
- AS ALWAYS, those interested in WRITING FOR Bookgum should email ME AT AnAmPatriot@gmail.com