[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, April 2014.]
This book is the story of three unusual friends but they are distinctly different to the people in the wider world, those they call "normals," because they have been cloned only to donate their organs. This is in fact their main function in life. At first, they live in a British-style "public school" (in other words, a privately funded institution) where they live, eat and sleep together every day of the year. There, they are "reared in a humane, cultivated environment," according to one of the (normal) guardians/teachers.
These teenagers have been "told but not told" about their limited futures as compulsory providers of vital organs and carers of those who are in this process. They are aware that they can never reproduce and know where the lives are leading but don´t exactly understand how they came to know it. This is one of the successful aspects of this piece of science fiction – the deception works.
These young people are accepting of their fate largely because they are housed away from the outside world and indoctrinated with language that obscures rather than enlightens. For example, they are taught that one day they will "complete" rather than die, after their final organ is removed. Equally, it is the case that much of the oddity of their lives is almost never spoken about directly. One teacher does finally have "an outburst" of honesty in front of her students but she is sacked soon after.
Ishiguro is a skilled writer, that is clear. His ability to describe the poignancy of a particular moment in time is apparent at a number of points in the story and he is completely convincing in understanding and portraying the thoughts and feelings of Kathy, his female narrator/protagonist. Since the age of five the author lived in England with his Japanese parents. His reading of body language, tone of voice and emphasis on facial expressions strikes me as particularly typical of many Japanese people – largely because society there considers it selfish when individuals express their true feelings in public. Above all, Japan has given priority to "the group" in all it´s forms and the collective opinion is a crucial part of the world that Kathy also inhabits, at least until she moves away from institutional living.
Where Ishiguro is less convincing for me is with certain aspects of the scenario he is created. I had to wonder why there was never any stirrings of genuine rebellion amongst the "students" (especially the older ones) when you consider how widely the huge amount of reading they do takes them. Instead, they form a theory about how important their artwork is and how trying to prove their love for a partner could possibly "defer" the operations they know they must one day undergo.
The author also has what I found to be an annoying habit of using lightweight gossip among the characters to outline their personalities and he relies on overly long conversations to propel the storyline. When you think of what else could have been done with this futuristic scenario, you can’t help asking whether Ishiguro was a bit lily-livered about it all.