Acceptance is one of the stronger themes in Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go. It is also one of the more annoying themes, according to many critics. The theme is played out through the characters who are clones, such as Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy. Though they sometimes have questions about their existence and the roles that they play as organ donors, they accept their plight without a fight. Although Miss Emily, the head of their boarding school, and her accomplice Madame, attempt to prove that the student/clones have souls by encouraging them to produce art and then displaying it, there is no discussion about the clones' rights in making decisions about their lives. They are told they are organ donors, and the clones go along with this determination made not by themselves but the adults they look up to.
The lines between love, sex, and friendship are often blurred in Never Let Me Go. Kathy's love for Tommy blossoms at Hailsham, where students become sexually active in their teens, but Tommy dates Ruth instead. The situation is complicated by the fact that Hailsham students are confused about the school's official policy about sex. On the one hand, clones are infertile by design and so are freed from the fear of getting pregnant. On the other hand, sex is never explicitly encouraged. Many more students say they're sexually active than actually are. When Ruth and Tommy first break up, Kathy squanders her opportunity to connect with him because of her promise to Ruth, who asks Kathy to speak to Tommy on her behalf. A love triangle forms, with Kathy left alone to watch as Tommy and Ruth get back together. Much later, on her deathbed, Ruth admits that she seduced Tommy just to keep him and Kathy apart. Once freed from that relationship, Tommy is able to date Kathy, with whom he has always had a special connection. By this time, however, Tommy has already begun his "donations," and the surgeries leave him weak. Kathy's role as a carer eventually divides the lovers, in large part because Tommy feels Kathy doesn't understand his situation. In the end, Kathy and Tommy break up and become something like friends again. The lines between love and friendship remain blurred, however, and Kathy still watches over Tommy up until his final "donation."
Throughout the 1990s I kept writing pieces of a story about an unusual group of "students" in the English countryside. I was never quite clear who these people were. They lived in wrecked farmhouses, and though they did a few typically student-like things - argued over books, worked on the occasional essay, fell in and out of love - there was no campus or professor in sight. Some strange fate hung over these young people, but again, I didn't know precisely what it was. (In those days, my mind kept turning to nuclear weapons.) On a shelf in my study, there's a box file marked "Students" stuffed full of these short pieces, the earliest going back to 1990. I'd really wanted to write my students novel, but I'd never been able to get beyond a certain point, and I'd always ended up writing some other quite different book.
Then one morning around five years ago, I was listening to an argument on the radio about advances in biotechnology. I usually tune out when scientific discussions come on, but this time I listened, and the last pieces of the jigsaw fell into place. I could finally see the story I'd been looking for: something simple, but very fundamental, about the sadness of the human condition. After that, I worked pretty steadily, averaging about 30 hours a week, for three years, until my book was finished. As usual, I threw large chunks away and agonised over the title for several weeks. I remember reading it back for the first time and concluding this was my most cheerful novel to date.
I was never tempted to set it in the future. Personally, I don't find futuristic landscapes very enticing. I don't have the energy to imagine all those details - what cars or shops or cupholders will be like in the future. And I didn't want to write anything that could be mistaken for a "prophecy". I wanted my novel to be one in which any reader might find an echo of his or her own life.
In any case, I'd always seen the novel taking place in the England of the 70s, 80s and 90s - the England of my youth, I suppose; an England far removed from the butlers-and-Rolls-Royce England I'd once attempted in The Remains of the Day. The sort of England I now wanted was one of grey skies, flat, bare fields, drab streets, abandoned farms, empty roads. Apart from the narrator's childhood memories, around which I might allow a little sun and vibrancy, I wanted an England drained of all bright colours. I wanted the kind of stark, chilly beauty I associate with certain remote rural areas and half-forgotten seaside towns.
The setting for the first section of Never Let Me Go is a boarding school, but let me say I never went to boarding school myself. Of course, I drew on my own memories of what it felt like to be a child and an adolescent. And I suppose it's inevitable the experience of being a parent would inform the way I think about children. But I can't think of any one scene in that school section based, even partly, on an actual event that ever happened to me or anyone I know. When I write about children, I do much the same as when I write about elderly people, or any other character who's different from me in culture or experience. I try my best to think and feel as they would, then see where that takes me. I've never found that children present any special demands for me as a novelist. In fact, I find it alarmingly easy to think like an adolescent.
The boarding school setting, I might add, appealed to me because it struck me as a physical manifestation of the way all children are separated off from the adult world, and are drip-fed little pieces of information about the world that awaits them, often with generous doses of deception - kindly meant or otherwise. In other words, it serves as a decent metaphor for childhood in general.
Lastly, a word about clones. Paradoxically, I found that having clones as central characters made it very easy to allude to some of the oldest questions in literature; questions which in recent years have become a little awkward to raise in fiction. "What does it mean to be human?" "What is the soul?" "What is the purpose for which we've been created, and should we try to fulfil it?" In books from past eras - in Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, say - characters would debate these issues for 20 pages at a time and no one would complain. But in our present era, novelists have struggled to find an appropriate vocabulary - an appropriate tone, perhaps - to discuss these questions without sounding pompous or archaic. The introduction of clones - or robots, or super-computers, I suppose - as main characters can reawaken these questions for modern readers in a natural and economic way. It's no surprise that several other recent books and films - including very ambitious ones from David Mitchell and Michel Houellebecq - have cast clones in major roles. It's a futuristic way of going ancient.
· Next week John Mullan will discuss readers' responses to Never Let Me Go.