9 Fascinating Facts About Kazuo Ishiguro's 'Never Let Me Go'

'Never Let Me Go'
'Never Let Me Go' / Penguin Random House (book cover), James Mato (background)

The Guardian named Kazuo Ishiguro’s sixth novel, Never Let Me Go—a subtle, heartbreaking sci-fi tale about clones whose lives are barreling toward a sad and mysterious end—one of its 100 best books of the 21st century. “Unless you have a real sense of precious things under threat there would be nothing sad about time being limited,” the author has said about the book. “The people in the novel believe, irrationally, like we all believe, that love can do all kinds of things that make you exempt from your fate.” Here’s what you need to know about Never Let Me Go, as seen in Mental Floss's book The Curious Reader.

1. Never Let Me Go was originally about lounge singers.

The characters were living in 1950s America and pursuing careers on Broadway; as Ishiguro told Poets & Writers, “The book would both be about that world and resemble its songs.” Things changed when the author had a friend come over for dinner: “He asked me what I was writing. I didn’t want to tell him what I was writing, because I don’t like to do that,” Ishiguro said. “So I told him one of my other projects. I said, ‘Maybe I’ll write this book about cloning.’” After that fateful meal, Ishiguro dropped his lounge singers concept and pursued the more sci-fi idea instead.

2. Ishiguro came up with narrator Kathy H. 15 years before he published Never Let Me Go. 

Initially, the character who would become the narrator of Never Let Me Go popped up in a vague idea for a book about young people hanging out and arguing about books in a time like the 1970s. “I knew there was this strange fate hanging over them, but I couldn’t work out exactly what it was,” Ishiguro told The Guardian

3. The author nixed a few ideas for what that “strange fate” would be.

At first, Ishiguro thought his characters would live a regular human lifespan more quickly than normal people—in 30 years rather than 80. “I thought that they were going to come across nuclear weapons that were being moved around at night in huge lorries and be doomed in some way,” he told The Paris Review

The author wrote a number of short stories featuring the students who would become Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy: “I was never sure who these people were,” he said. “I just knew 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 college campus or teacher anywhere in sight … I have a lot of these short pieces, some going back as far as the early ‘90s. I’d wanted to write a novel about my students, but I’d never got any further; I’d always ended up writing some other quite different novel.”

But when he heard a radio show about biotechnology, something clicked: Ishiguro decided to make his students clones; over the course of their lives, they go from students to “carers” to “donors” who eventually “complete”—die after donating all of their organs to the people they’re clones of. Having his characters be clones didn’t just give Ishiguro a reason for why their lifespans would be cut short; it also made his readers immediately ask themselves what, exactly, it means to be a human being—what he said was “a secular route to the Dostoevskian question, ‘What is a soul?’” 

4. According to Ishiguro, the boarding school is “a physical manifestation for what we have to do to all children.”

Ishiguro’s clones are raised in a boarding school called Hailsham, where the truth about their purpose is hidden from them. For the author, Hailsham represented what adults have to do to protect children from the harsh realities of life that they might not be ready for. “When you become a parent, or a teacher, you turn into a manager of this whole system,” he told The Guardian. “You become the person controlling the bubble of innocence around a child, regulating it. All children have to be deceived if they are to grow up without trauma.”

5. He very purposefully didn’t set the book in the future ...

Though Never Let Me Go has a decidedly futuristic premise, Ishiguro—who has said he’s “not much of a science fiction reader”—chose to set the novel in 1990s England. “I’m not very turned on by futuristic landscapes … And I didn’t want to write anything that could be mistaken for a ‘prophecy,’” he told BookBrowse. “Apart from Kathy’s childhood memories, around which there could be a little sun and vibrancy, I wanted to paint an England with the kind of stark, chilly beauty I associate with certain remote rural areas and half-forgotten seaside towns.” 

6. … And he doesn’t necessarily think of it as sci-fi.

Rather than a dystopian or sci-fi tale, Ishiguro said he preferred to think of Never Let Me Go as alternative history: “The novel offers a version of Britain that might have existed by the late 20th century if just one or two things had gone differently on the scientific front.” He would later say that “the sci-fi speculative surface of the story … was the last piece of the jigsaw. It was almost like a device to make the thing work, to create this world that seems very strange and distant, initially, but then hopefully … the audience will start to recognize it as their own story.”

7. Ishiguro thinks of Never Let Me Go as his “cheerful novel.”

Prior to Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro wrote what he called “how-not-to-lead-your-life books” about his characters’ failings, as a sort of warning to himself. But Never Let Me Go was his “cheerful novel,” one where he focused on his characters' positive traits in addition to their flaws. His goal, he said, was to make his three main characters “essentially decent.” When they finally become aware of their purpose—and the fact that they don’t have the luxury of time—”I wanted them to care most about each other and setting things right,” he told The Paris Review. “So for me, it was saying positive things about human beings against the rather bleak fact of our mortality.”

8. There’s a reason the characters don’t try to escape.

Though Tommy and Kathy do try to subvert their fate, they fail—and just accept their failure. In fact, every Hailsham clone fulfills their ultimate purpose and completes. So, perhaps not surprisingly, one of the questions about Never Let Me Go that was posed to Ishiguro many times was: Why don’t the characters try to run away? 

For one, “they live in this enclosed world, they live just amongst others like them, so that’s the only life they know,” Ishiguro explained to NPR. “To them, that’s the natural lifespan. And far from feeling that they should rebel or run away, they feel a certain sense of duty to do these things well.”

But “honest answer,” the author once said, was that he wasn’t interested in telling that kind of story. “I’m fascinated by the extent to which people don’t run away. I think if you look around us, that is the remarkable fact—how much we accept what fate has given us,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just passivity, sometimes it’s just simply perspective. We don’t have the perspective to think about running away. … I was looking for a metaphor for how we face mortality, and we can’t really escape from that. We can’t escape from the fact that we’ve only got a limited amount of time.”

9. The book has been adapted several times.

In 2010, Alex Garland wrote and Mark Romanek directed a film adaptation of Ishiguro’s novel starring Carey Mulligan as Kathy, Keira Knightley as Ruth, and Andrew Garfield as Tommy. Ishiguro was a fan: “I was sucked into the film almost immediately; I was pulled along,” he told NPR. “I was never doing that thing of checking off scenes in my head, thinking how are they going to do that scene. ... I found myself plunged into a powerful, different world … I think it's a wonderful, unique work with tremendous artistic integrity and authority, all of it.”

In Japan, there has been a stage adaptation and a television show. Most recently, FX announced that it was developing a TV show based on the novel.