Hailsham, on the surface, would seem like another English boarding school. Here, students spend their days attending classes ran by teachers they call “guardians,” engaging in debates about novels they’ve read, playing football, taunting
each other and, most remarkably, trying to perfect their artworks with the aim of these being picked out for The Gallery. But Hailsham is not just another English boarding school. Students are often reminded that they are "special"; this, despite their knowledge since childhood that they would never become film stars or office workers or anything else that they might have dreamt of. This is because Hailsham students were created for one specific purpose: to become "donors." Such is their fate that they all readily accepted and never questioned.
It was at Hailsham that Kathy spent the foundation years of her life, along with two friends who would shape her being in more ways than one – Ruth and Tommy. Now Kathy, a 31-year-old "carer," looks back at her life at Hailsham and through
increments of a grippingly controlled narration, reveals why exactly they were always deemed special. Throughout her narration, Kathy tells stories of their exploits at Hailsham. There are stories of Tommy’s temper tantrums. Over the years, Tommy would become the subject of pranks by other Hailsham students because of his inability to control his emotions. There are also stories of Ruth’s penchant for make-believe. A young Ruth would invite Kathy to ride her imaginary horse and become part of the “secret guards” for one of their guardians. As they reach their teenage years, Kathy recounts how Tommy and Ruth became a couple and how after splitting up, Ruth counted on her to get the two of them back together. Their friendship, of course, was not without disagreements and misunderstandings. But when all's said and done, it’s like an unseen force would always pull them all back together.
This somewhat peculiar relationship would continue even as they leave Hailsham and move to the Cottages. It was here that they began to mix with people who were not from Hailsham. The new environment only reinforced the sowed belief that they were special – not the least because of their new companions believing the same thing, that they had access to certain privileges because they came from Hailsham. It wasn’t until years later – when she was already a carer and was picking up the pieces with Ruth and Tommy – that all these talks about being special would make sense to Kathy.
The three friends may have fallen out after their years at the Cottages, but their shared destiny would bring them back together. This time, both Ruth and Tommy had already started donating their vital organs, which is what clones like them
were created for. Kathy was on the final years of being a carer for other donors and would before long become a donor
herself. As the three attempted to rebuild their shared past and look ahead at their inevitable future, amends were made and the closeness they once lost was once again alive. They knew that the time wasted could no longer be salvaged but perhaps, because they were from Hailsham and therefore special, they could defer carrying out what they were built to serve.
Kathy now understands they are special not because they can stay away from doing what other clones before them have all done. They were created to help humankind cure diseases that were once deemed incurable. This is their purpose; it’s what Ruth and Tommy did up to their last breath, and it’s what Kathy will soon do. Yet, she is grateful that she and her friends were raised at Hailsham – educated, cultured and civilized like regular kids, as this is a privilege that clones from other facilities did not have. Instead, they grew up in deplorable conditions which many people thought befitting non-humans like them. Kathy appreciates how their years at Hailsham afforded Ruth the chance to believe her fantasies and experience hope. She appreciates how their guardians made them spend hours on their art, even to the point of frustrating Tommy then, to prove that they had souls and were no less human than the rest of the world.
Kathy has no last name and no family. Somewhere in another part of England is the “real” her, living the real life that Kathy will not have. But for a good part of her existence, she had Hailsham, and she had Ruth and Tommy.
Part coming-of-age, part sci-fi, all the way melancholia, Never Let Me Go is so much more than just a story about cloning.
It is a tale of innocence and discovery, companionship and loss, believing and accepting – things that everyone, birthed or manufactured, will go through at one point or another. Despite giving away the “secrets” of Hailsham and the future of its
students early on in the story, the novel still manages to grab hold of the reader up to the very end. Little by little, through the narrator Kathy’s anecdotes, the reader not only gets a glimpse of the lives of the characters, but understands and empathizes with them. It is almost three hundred pages of heartbreak, infused with little dusts of hope, while the whole time grasping reality. In the end, the circumstances of these characters do not divide them from us, but their emotions and
experiences bind us with them.