This essay will explore the relationship between memory and narrative in Never Let me Go through the narration of Ishiguro’s protagonist, Kathy H. Narration plays a large role in how memories are communicated in the novel, acting as the medium through which memories are shared and how they create a dialogue with the reader. I will argue that this relationship between memory and narrative is identified through Kathy’s frequently problematic recollection of events often resulting in an unreliable narrative, as well as her obsession with the past in an attempt to keep her memories alive. Kathy’s autobiographical narrative is identified immediately with a self-introduction “My name is Kathy H.
I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years” (Ishiguro, 3). After a long period of replaying past memories throughout the novel, the distance between the narrating and experiencing self gradually narrows and the narration closes with the description of a recent experience, a trip Kathy takes alone to Norfolk after Tommy’s death. Before recounting her childhood, Kathy mentions a donor who was once under her care who repeatedly asks her about Hailsham so that he can “remember Hailsham, just like it had been his own childhood” (Ishiguro, 5). Kathy follows on to say that this man who tried to graft her childhood memory into his own mind made her stop resisting the temptation of looking back on her Hailsham days, as she previously “tried to leave Hailsham behind, when I’ve told myself I shouldn’t look back so much” (Ishiguro, 5). Kathy tells her story with great emotional restraint and honesty as her recollection of the past often comes with some problems.
When she is not entirely confident about the accuracy of her memory she clearly states that “I might have some of it wrong” (Ishiguro, 13), “I don’t remember exactly” (Ishiguro, 25), suggesting a possibility of a gap between her memory and the truth of events. The fragile nature of memory is further highlighted in situations where Kathy disagrees with Ruth and Tommy’s recollection, and where Kathy’s interpretation of the past is influenced by her friends’ memories. These idiosyncrasies reflect the unreliability of memory itself which is incomplete and episodic as argued by Mark Currie, Professor of Contemporary Literature at Queen Mary University of London, “there are indications of interference in the memory from acts of recollection and narration that mediate between a narrated event and the time of its narration” (Currie, 94). Kathy’s frequent trouble with her recollection of past memories is identified as typical memory loss by Professor and Psychoanalyst at York University Toronto, Deborah Britzman, “retroactive time collapses from memory’s weight; she is never sure if events she recalls match any meaning, then or now” (Britzman, 311).
When looking back as an adult on her life at Hailsham, only then does Kathy realise the detrimental amount of loss experienced throughout her life. This recurring motif begins with Miss Emily’s description of Norfolk as a “lost corner” (Ishiguro, 65), which caused students to believe that all lost property in England ended up there. Due to their own “‘Lost Property’ up on the third floor” (Ishiguro, 65) this acts as a childhood comfort to the students at Hailsham as it suggests that although loss is inevitable, what is lost can be found again as evidenced in Kathy’s finding of her old cassette tape “Judy Bridgewater. My old friend.
It’s like she’s never been away” (Ishiguro, 178). However, this fantasy becomes less compelling to the students as they grow older and experience human loss as donors and carers. Although Kathy finds her old cassette tape in Norfolk, it only awakens a naive, childhood wish to believe in Norfolk’s power.
When Kathy returns to Norfolk after Tommy’s death, she does so only to indulge in the fantasy of recovering what she has lost as Tommy is now simply a memory. Ultimately, Kathy can only recover her losses in her memory and her imagination, as highlighted through her narrative. Furthermore, the relationship between memory and narration is evident in Kathy’s role as an unreliable narrator. Her account is subjective and therefore only presents events from her perspective, frequently causing her emotional restraint whilst attempting to recall honest events. The definition of an unreliable narrative focuses on the concept of “ironic distance” (D’hoker, 152) between the narrator and reader.
Kathy often guards her own feelings as she never explicitly states the depth of her love for Tommy, although this becomes increasingly clear as the narrative unfolds and Ruth confirms the realisation of their love “I kept you and Tommy apart. That was the worst thing I did” (Ishiguro, 228). Faulted for having a “familiar, chatty style” discourse by literary critic Frank Kermode, Kathy’s unreliable narrative is expected to create distance between the narrator and reader but instead this brings them closer together through the reader’s need to find the truth. This is argued by Senior Lecturer in English Literature at University of Leuven, Belgium, stating that “this sense of superiority on the part of the reader is lessened because the reader is frustrated in his or her attempt to arrive at a more accurate version of the facts” (D’hoker, 166). Kathy’s implied reader is someone who shares a similar background to hers as this person is assumed to understand the context of the many terms Kathy uses “carer,” “donor,” “possible,” and “completion,” yet has not been brought up at Hailsham like she has. In Never Let Me Go in particular, Ishiguro develops the character of Kathy who rewrites her past from memory in order to heal the wounds and to replace what has been lost and subsequently creates a sense of identity, however difficult for a clone. Ishiguro’s novels, by both facilitating and frustrating the process of finding out what really happened not only focuses the reader’s attention on the narrator’s mental processes, but deconstructs the notion of truth, and ultimately questions both reliable and unreliable narration and the distinctions between them. Applying this method has resulted in what author and literary critic, David John Lodge, refers to as “appearance and reality” (Lodge, 155) between what the narrator narrates and what actually happens.
Therefore, in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, the subjectivity and selectivity of memory is explored through the Kathy’s role of unreliable narration. The complex time structure of the novel, comprising mainly of a flashback style narrative, contributes to the staging of memory as a highly subjective event rather than a process involving conscious and chronological recall. Ishiguro presents memory through narration in terms of a journey into the past, which is essentially a self-reflective project. Although Kathy’s narrative style may present her as an unreliable narrator, it is ultimately her focus on the past which causes this inconsistency within her narrative whilst trying to retrieve old memories due to the unreliability of memory itself.
Throughout the novel, Kathy addresses an unidentified “you” to which she relates the account of her own life. Senior Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature, Anne Whitehead, points out how the narrator’s use of the second-person address is “a device commonly used in Victorian fiction to enhance sympathetic connection.” However, Whitehead also recognises that in Never Let Me Go, “this acts rather to unsettle the reader, and to call into question how or where she is positioned in relation to Kathy” (Whitehead, ). This may arguably be due to Kathy’s personal interest in Victorian Literature and the influence this has on her narrative style as identified at the Cottages, “I was reading Daniel Deronda” (Ishiguro, 120), “War and Peace” (Ishiguro, 121). The direct address engages the reader and Ishiguro activates his readers’ attention. In an interview with Ishiguro, he states that the reader should engage with following events in the novel and ask questions such as “why has she remembered this event just at this point? How does she feel about it? And when she says she can’t remember very precisely what happened, but she’ll tell us anyway, well, how much do we trust her?” (Ishiguro) highlighting that he wants the reader to reflect on the process of storytelling through Kathy’s narrative. Through the narrator’s dialogue with her listener, Ishiguro establishes a dialogue with his own readers. Kathy’s second-person address may also indicate a reference to another clone reader “I don’t know how it was where you were,” which helps to explain the novel’s isolating ending.
Whitehead reports John Mullan’s interpretation of the “you” with whom Kathy shares her memories, identifying them with another clone however not necessarily one who attended Hailsham as Kathy mentions other ‘schools.’ Although many readers may object to Kathy and Tommy’s meek acceptance of their fate, Ishiguro implies that only a similar being who has shared Kathy’s experiences as a clone could understand their choices. In Never Let Me Go, Kathy begins her narration after losing her best friend, Ruth, and lover, Tommy. Her autobiographical account can be described as a reaction to the trauma of these experiences and also to the inevitability of her own death, drawing closer as her career as a carer comes to an end.
Her obsession with old memories stems from a need to keep her friends ‘alive’ after their ‘completion.’ Whilst the Oxford English Dictionary Online describes nostalgia as a “sentimental longing for” (OED) which is often seen as a positive, reminiscent emotion, Ishiguro rather portrays Kathy’s narration as a “regretful memory of a period of the past” (OED). Kathy’s obsession is further highlighted through Ishiguro’s flashback style structure as Kathy focuses almost entirely on the past revealing little about her present life. This is evident through the symbolism of Kathy’s Judy Bridgewater cassette tape and the song Never Let Me Go which she often refers to throughout the novel. Back at Hailsham, Kathy dances to this song cradling an imaginary baby to her chest as Madame notices Kathy and cries “she was out in the corridor, standing very still.
..And the odd thing was she was crying” (Ishiguro, 71). Many years later in discussion Madame, Kathy learns that Madame believed that Kathy enjoyed the songs depiction of an “old kind world” (Ishiguro, 267), compared to the cruel world into which Kathy would soon belong. The Judy Bridgewater tape therefore symbolises many of the characters’ attitudes toward life before and after Hailsham with Kathy, Ruth and Tommy each reminiscing on the past, whereas Madame emphasises the reality of their situation in this cruel world. By repeatedly focusing on symbols of the past, Kathy’s narrative creates a direct relationship with memory in an attempt to keep her personal memories, as well as her friends, alive.Overall, it can be concluded that Ishiguro creates a strong relationship between memory and narrative in Never Let Me Go through the narration of Kathy H.
Kathy’s frequent trouble recalling events contributes a large portion of the whole narrative, due to Ishiguro’s flashback style forcing her to search her retroactive memory. The relationship between memory and narrative is highlighted through Kathy’s role as an unreliable narrator due to the subjectivity of her storytelling, as well as her desperate attempt to keep old memories alive as a way to remember her friends.