“I might have some of it wrong”: One Girl’s Place in Time as Seen in Never Let Me Go

From the start of the novel, a few things become immediately clear about Kathy H. She’s thirty-one years old, and she’s been a carer for eleven of those years, a pretty impressive feat as fourteen is considered an especially long time. Her job is something she feels very strongly about and has a great deal of pride in. And she serves as an unreliable narrator. While the term is fairly new, the concept of an unreliable narrator is exactly what it sounds like, and can be found in works as old as The Canterbury Tales or as recent as Ishigo’s last novel, When We Were Orphans.

In her third year as a carer, Kathy tends to a donor who wants to hear her memories of Hailsham before he completes. He takes her stories and turns them into his own memories, replacing his own, which he believes to be unsatisfactory. Kathy takes this experience as proof of how lucky her and her classmates were, but this is why the novel is told in the form of a flashback: so that Kathy has the opportunity to romanticize her own experiences at Hailsham. She admits as much early on, when she says that, with regards to her first meaningful interaction with Tommy, she might be “remembering it wrong”. When she is later confronted with the notion that memories can fade, she rejects it outright, and having lost everything else, clings to those memories for dear life.

For a lot of people, school is a time of immense confusion and angst, but it is often viewed favorably with nostalgia. Such it is with the Hailsham students. At the beginning of part three, Kathy runs into a burned-out Laura, who relates that Ruth has had a bad first donation. They also speak for the first time about Hailsham’s closing, thereby cementing it in their memories. They’re unable to think about it at any length, because they both live in the past, easily the best option to people who have no futures.

While the title can refer to any number of things, from the Judy Bridgewater song, to the notion of holding onto a child or a lover, or to Kathy’s friendships with Ruth and Tommy, perhaps the most overreaching definition is the one that makes Madame weep for little dancing Kathy. Madame cries for a girl who can’t let go of the old world, and we know for a fact that this is true. Their futures only exist on posters and in magazines. Their possibles are out there somewhere, but feel just as tangible as Tommy’s animals. When Kathy sings “Never Let Me Go”, she’s singing it not to a doll, or Ruth, or Tommy, but to Hailsham itself. Don’t make me wake up. Don’t make me say goodbye.

After a total of twelve years as a carer, the job has effectively wore her down. She can no longer leave Hailsham behind. Despite the best efforts of Miss Emily and Madame, there’s no humanity for Kathy and her friends to share with the world. Their lives were nothing more than ephemera, as useless as their art projects: just something to bide the time until they got the chance to fulfill their ultimate purpose. Their futures are bleak, their presents are mundane at best, and their pasts are lived in fantasy. The last lines of the book find her in Norfolk, trying to catch a glimpse of all that she has lost, before returning to the future that has been set for her since the very beginning. Like all the classmates who have completed before her, Kathy is simply an empty vessel, hollow long before her first donation.

Random Thoughts:

  • My apologies if this thesis seems both short and a little muddled. I read the novel the week after you guys covered Blood Meridian, and I wasn’t taking notes right out of the gate. Within the past week, I downloaded the audiobook to refresh my memory for some of the stuff at the beginning. If I were any real writer, I would’ve organized my notes prior to writing. Silly me!
  • I liked it a lot more than I had expected. When I saw it was by the writer of The Remains of the Day, my thoughts immediately went to stuffy Victorian novels, which is not exactly what I typically look for. But while this definitely had a very detached, British feel to it, I enjoyed it quite a bit.


About the Author:

Dafs is a Mental Health Tech working out of South Carolina. He is on his third year of applying to medical school, and his second of reading Videogum. He has a minor in English that he occasionally utilizes to write Lion King fanfiction. He lives with his fiancee and their two cats, and has too much knowledge about horror movies and Mystery Science Theater 3000 (check out the episode where they watch Parts: The Clonus Horror, about a colony of clones raised for organ donation).


  • Wednesday, ihavetoreturntovideotapes is TALKIN ABOUT the role of Halisham and education in the development of the central characters.
  • 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


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20 Responses to “I might have some of it wrong”: One Girl’s Place in Time as Seen in Never Let Me Go

  1. tripl3fast says:

    thanks for writing. another example to go along with the idea of losing memories is when Kathy gets mad when Ruth “forgets” things about Hailsham. To go along with your theme of the unreliable narrator, maybe its Kathy herself who is forgetting her past.

  2. lilbobbytables says:

    Kathy H. as an unreliable narrator is something that struck me as well, and something I thought about frequently while reading this book. We see the story unfold through her eyes – but how clear is this image? How much does nostalgia for the past and her love for Tommy and Ruth influence her narration? You mention her donor, who supplants her memories for his own – I wonder how much her own relation of her memories, both to herself (and to the reader), and to her donors, affected, distorted, or cemented them.

    In conclusion, I am a nerd who thinks about memories of fictional characters perhaps too seriously.

  3. Godsauce says:

    One of the most interesting things to me about Kathy as an unreliable narrator is her acknowledgment of the fact. The device is so often used to trick the audience that i thing that it is refreshing and intriguing to see it used so straightforwardly to deepen the themes of the novel.

    • A Serious Monster says:

      Hey Godsauce, have you read The Good Soldier? It is one of my favorite books, and I am always recommending it to everyone. Like NLMG, it has a narrator who says he’s uncertain about his memories. Mostly he talks about how he doesn’t know if he interprets any of his memories right, and he talks about his feeling that he never understood any of the people he thought he knew well.

      But for me, in that story, his free admission of unreliability sometimes felt disingenuous–like he was marking certain recollections as iffy in order to get his reader to implicitly believe everything he didn’t mark that way.

      Anyway, my point was just that that is a good book that uses an arguably unreliable narrator in an interesting way also.

  4. A Serious Monster says:

    I spent a semester in college reading too many modernist novels and now I can’t read any first-person narration without wondering about the narrator’s credibility. IT CAN HAPPEN TO YOU.

    This unreliability problem persists outside of fiction, obviously. All our memories distort and muddle and fade. And I think it’s poignant that our memories become more precious as they are becoming less faithful.

    Kathy made me think about my grandmother, who lately began talking to me about how strange it feels that most of her friends are dead. Whenever she tells me stories about her past, more than seeming sad, she seems unsatisfied. By the intangibility of it, I think. Kathy seems more satisfied (or more placid), but over the entire course of the book, I kept feeling struck by this feeling that memories aren’t enough, but that they’re all we have? (Barf, sorry.)

    The segregation in the world of NLMG is interesting to me. It shields “normal” humans from the realization that the cloned people are people, and it also creates a weird normalcy for Kathy and the others. It is normal to them to accept a destiny of organ harvesting. And it’s normal to them to be old when they’re 30. Kathy, at the point where she is telling the story, really is old, I think. All her friends are dead, and she is making some kind of peace. Something that was really eerie things for me is that Kathy, who appears young, is more like my 90-year-old grandmother than my 21-year-old self.

    Sorry, got rambly. Well: started rambly, stayed rambly.

  5. shellbomber says:

    Speaking of Kathy as an unreliable narrator of her memories…

    As I said before (and I know everyone was listening and taking copious notes), I wanted to be involved in Bookgum because I’ve always gravitated towards nonfiction, specifically memoir. I love memoirs and autobiographical essays but they bother me at the same time. I want to believe that everything is actually real, but I know that’s not true. Memories are combined and manipulated for dramatic or comedic effect. I can’t help but wonder (I’m SUCH a Carrie btw), constantly, when reading this genre, “how much of this actually happened this way?” I know the point is to enjoy the story for what it is, but I just can never let it go. Barf.

    So, when reading Never Let Me Go, there was this extra layer of distrust of the storyteller. Not only am I suspicious of Kathy’s memories, I’m suspicious of Kathy’s fictional memories because this is a novel. Gawd Shell, you’re so weird.

    • potatotoe says:

      and the “because of what happened next” structure makes it extra suspicious too, because it seems like she’s using it to pull herself along and make the narrative all neat and causal.

    • Godsauce says:

      Are you suggesting that her story about coming of age as a clone isn’t entirely true?

    • Patrick M says:

      Everyone talking about unreliable narrators and memoirs is reminding me of the biography of Ronald Reagan that Edmund Morris did called “Dutch”, where Morris added himself (and other fictional characters) into the narrative (because Reagan was an empty vessel who only made sense in cinematic structural terms, I think?), and it caused a lot of book reviewers some anxiety, and I don’t know who else to tell the fact that I keep thinking about this to, except you people.

  6. Patrick M says:

    Just to say this out loud (remember to insert link to text-to-speech site before posting), that in saying “unreliable narrator” I don’t think anyone is saying that she is willfully unreliable.

    Liiiike yesterday, I said (in talking about Tommy and Ruth) that maybe it makes sense that their relationship seems to come out of nowhere, since it’s not in Kathy’s interest to present Tommy and Ruth’s relationship narratively, because it might make us sympathetic to it. I did not mean I believe she is intentionally obscuring any details; I believe she believes everything she says, and that she is including everything that is important.

    But I would be curious to know if anyone thinks that Kathy is being purposefully “unreliable” at any point.

    • Bookface says:

      I don’t think Kathy ever goes as far as to lie or knowingly change pieces of her story. I do think she understates some of her own feelings. For example, after discussing with Tommy if he was glad Ruth complete before they the truth about the gallery, deferrals, and other houses, Kathy says “But now I’ve had more time to think about it, I’m not sure how I feel. A part of me keeps wishing we’d somehow been able to share everything we discovered with Ruth. Okay, maybe it would have made her feel bad; made her see whatever damage she’d once done to us couldn’t be repaired as easily as she’d hoped. And maybe, if I’m honest, that’s a small part of my wishing she knew it all before she completed. But in the end , I think it’s about something else, something much more than my feeling vengeful and mean-spirited. . . I’ve got no anger left for her now.” Kathy might not be as angry with Ruth, but there is a significant amount of pain surrounding them that Kathy wishes she could pay back to Ruth.

      Perhaps it’s Kathy’s carer temperament or a need to synthesize her memories into a cohesive past that lead to these adjustments in expressed emotion.

  7. limesix says:

    The thing about an unreliable narrator is that it’s only useful as a device if you can figure out the outlines of what really happened from clues in the narrative. So I think Kathy is certainly unreliable, but mostly as you would expect – romanticizing her childhood, having a limited knowledge Ruth and Tommy’s relationship, etc.

    I don’t think there’s a larger dimension to her narrative that we can’t see or that it’s intentionally misleading – it’s just spotty (especially about halisham) and nostalgic and limited, as most of our memories are. Of course, it’s more important to her for it to be all those things, since she’s using her memories as a shield against the reality she can’t do anything to change.

    • A Serious Monster says:

      I agree that Kathy is not intentionally misleading, but I disagree that the unreliable narrator is only a useful device if the reader can figure out “what really happened.” The unreliable narrator is an interesting way to explore the unreliability of story–the fact that there is no “what really happened” and that even the most straightforward-seeming stories are slippery.

      • Patrick M says:

        (mostly agree, but bear in mind that A Serious Monster might be hiding something)

      • limesix says:

        Good point – I don’t disagree… maybe more what I meant to say is it’s most effective as a device (especially in fiction) where you can see the outlines of what the narrator isn’t telling you if you examine the narrative as a whole. Since it’s all just made up anyway.

      • limesix says:

        But agree that “what really happened” is always a subjective thing based on who saw the tree fall in the forest and how they felt about it. So to speak.

      • natatattat says:

        I agree with A Serious Monster, but I will say that Limesix makes a good point as well if looking at the unreliable narrator as a character development device. I don’t know that I would argue it’s entirely necessary, but knowing the differences between a reality and the perspective of the character would help the reader better understand the character.

  8. Baby Friday says:

    Thank you for writing, and I’m sorry to be so late in saying so! I was so intrigued by the way that Ishiguro uses time, and you made some great points. I was especially caught by the fact that you mentioned school as a source of nostalgia. The farther away I get from my various alma maters (almas mater?) the more fondly I remember.

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