Ishiguro’s methodical and systematic unraveling of a character’s inner life typically leaves readers either enthralled or exasperated (and readers at my book club exhibited both reactions in equal measure!) I definitely fall into the former, and revel in the “peeling-the-onion” mystery of his best work (the butler in “Remains of the Day”; the painter in “An Artist in the Floating World”). Here he ups the stakes considerably by asking what the inner life of a biological clone might resemble. Ishiguro ingeniously combines reminisces of the past (British boarding-school life in the nineteen-eighties) with an ever-so-slightly off-kilter future (clones are either “donors” who contribute their organs to “originals”; or “carers” who look after donors if they themselves are not genetically pure enough to donate their own organs). In this matter-of-fact dystopian society the three protagonists Kathy, Tommy and Ruth grow up in a special boarding school where they form childhood cliques and learn to accept their isolation until they are old enough to venture into the broader world. Dimly aware of their status, struggling with adolescent angst and their own burgeoning sexuality, they cling desperately to semi-truths or complete fabrications: they can “defer” if they are in love; their art projects are a measure of their “soul” and hence acceptance by society. As they come to the chilling realization that they are nothing more than replacement parts for an unaware and uncaring society, the tragic arc of their lives (foreshadowed in the opening chapter) becomes apparent. As the book leads to its heartbreaking conclusion, the reader finds themselves caught in an intricately spun web of Ishiguro’s plotting: Drawn into the emotionally charged world of the protagonists we can no longer watch them die without acknowledging their fundamental humanity. As Kathy helps her friend and unrequited love Tommy through to “completion” (in the euphemism of the culture), the knowledge that neither love nor art is a cure for their “disease” becomes stunningly obvious. The book was made into an excellent film by Mark Romanek in 2010; Karey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield give powerful performances as Kathy and Tommy. I recommend the film to those who *don’t* like the book: It dramatically captures the emotional tension between clones and humans in a way that Ishiguro’s elliptical prose leaves understated.
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