Somewhere in the quiet English countryside, the children of Hailsham School appear to be busy and happy, though they don't venture into the woods around the school. They don't seem to have parents.
They know they can't have babies. They know they can have sex.
Their teachers are called "guardians."
One of the guardians, Miss Lucy, is having a breakdown over whatever it is that the children are not being told. She is asked to leave the school.
Something is wrong here. Goosebumps begin to form. Put on a sweater. We're a long way from knowing what's up.
We gradually realize that the children are clones. But we don't know what they are being cloned for. We don't know whom they are cloned from. We don't know why they are kept away from the rest of civilization. We don't know why, when occasionally an outsider does encounter one of the children, he tends to react with horror and disgust.
There is a certain amount of pleasure in the detective work involved in reading "Never Let Me Go," Kazuo Ishiguro's enigmatic new novel, and finally, finally figuring out what's happening. The pace of disclosure is slow in Ishiguro's earlier novels, too. Much is fog and obfuscation in "The Unconsoled," "When We Were Orphans," even "The Remains of the Day." Is there a point to this lack of clarity?
Perhaps, in the case of this book, the point is that we have a long, long time to listen to the sad, flat voice of Kathy H. -- a long time to hear the story from the point of view of the victims, to understand their pain and their helpless resignation, to register the indignity of it all, to digest the horror.
Kathy H. is one of a trio of kids who, in their days at Hailsham, seem to try harder than most to get to the bottom of things. She, Tommy, and Ruth live out their earlier years playing sports, gossiping and poking their noses here and there.
Though the background of the novel is hazy, the foreground is full of odd detail. Occasional deliveries of used junk from the outside arrive, allowing the students to hold sales where they can buy bits of stuff. Kathy H. buys an old tape and finds on it the song, "Never Let Me Go," which she plays over and over. In a particularly haunting scene, a guardian looks on, weeping, as the child Kathy dances to the tune, clutching a pillow which she pretends is her baby.
After the teenagers leave the school, they have some opportunity to work for a while at a place called The Cottages, to explore the countryside, to live a little life. Then they go off to various centers where they have their training and become what they become. They continue to see each other when they can, while they can.
Kathy, as she is telling the story, knows she won't live much longer. Her two friends, Ruth and Tommy, are already dead, or as the novel says, "completed." So Kathy spends much of her time thinking about the three of them at Hailsham, where they grew up together. She recalls hers and Tommy's early efforts to understand the situation at the school. She remembers an angry Ruth's attempts (which succeed) to get Tommy for herself, even though the boy really loves Kathy.
Why isn't all this trivial? Because it matters. Because they don't have a full life span to look forward to. Because they have only this one chance to feel anything like love.
In an indelible scene at the end of the novel, Tommy stands at the edge of the sea and screams his heart out.
Yes, novels have been written about cloning before. But this one will give you a permanent chill.
Never Let Me Go
By Kazuo Ishiguro
Knopf, 304 pages, $24
Sally Fiedler is a well-known Buffalo poet and teacher.