I won't be a carer any more come the end of the year, and though I've got a lot out of it, I have to admit I'll welcome the chance to rest - to stop and think and remember. I'm sure it's at least partly to do with that, to do with preparing for the change of pace, that I've been getting this urge to reorder all these old memories. What I really wanted, I suppose, was to get straight all the things that happened between me and Tommy and Ruth after we grew up and left Hailsham. But I realise now just how much of what occurred later came out of our time at Hailsham, and that's why I want first to go over these earlier memories quite carefully. ... I don't know if you had 'collections' where you were. When you come across old students from Hailsham, you always find them, sooner or later, getting nostalgic about their collections. At the time, of course, we took it all for granted.
This technique seems harmlessly inclusive at the start, but by cleverly insinuating the reader into the narrative, the novel's concerns become our own, preparing the way for some frightening questions at the end. I found it easy to 'take it all for granted' while I was reading, but the real impact of this novel occurs after you have read the final page and put it away!
Most of Kathy's memories are centered on her days at Hailsham, which at first appears to be a privileged boarding school with a slightly strange over-emphasis on the children's health and creativity. The narrative revolves around the love triangle that develops between Kathy and her friends, Ruth and Tommy. The student's lives seem relatively normal, but there is a sinister, over protective atmosphere at the school which grows as they, and the reader, gradually learn the truth about their purpose in life. Even then, nothing is grasped with certainty - the language is pervaded with qualifiers: "maybe", "somehow", "perhaps", and Kathy matter-of-factly accepts her own inability to grasp any certainty about her existence: "Of course, I'll never know for sure," and "I don't really understand it."
When they 'graduate' from the school, they are released into a society which seems alien to them - a world of relationships and economics in which they exist as observors, playing no real part, waiting for the next, mysterious phase of their life to begin. I am struck by a butterfly metaphor here - at Hailsham, the students are caterpillars, voraciously devouring the education that is fed to them, and when they are released, as they cling to each other and try to adjust to their new life, they seem to cocoon themselves in their memories of the life they have left. One by one they 'hatch' and move on to start their new futures - but here the metaphor fails - no glorious flight of freedom awaits them. In a way, the students' upbringing at Hailsham (and similar establishments across Britain) seems to have instilled in them a kind of mechanical detachment, so while in one sense they are learning to live and love as typical emotional adolescents, there is always that awareness of external complications and expectations that we can't quite see or understand. This is best illustrated by the intricate mechanical animals which Tommy begins to draw:
I was taken aback at how densely detailed each one was. in fact it took a moment to see they were animals at all. The first impression was like one you’d get if you took the back off a radio set: tiny canals, weaving tendons, miniature screws and wheels were all drawn with obsessive precision, and only when you held the page away could you see it was some kind of armadillo, say, or a bird. . . . For all their busy, metallic features, there was something sweet, even vulnerable about each of them.
The reality, which the reader has suspected from the start, is that Kathy and her friends are clones, created for the sole purpose of becoming organ donors. The real mystery of the novel is ostensibly why Hailsham placed such an emphasis on their personal development, seeing as they were destined never to have any real future. The reader is not the only one who finds this bewildering.
"Why train us, encourage us, make us produce all of that? If we're just going to give donations anyway, then die, why all of those lessons?"
However, a stronger underlying mystery which has kept me thinking and rethinking about this novel, is why, as adults, the students are so accepting of their fate. There is one scene where Kathy and Tommy are driving at night through a lonely countryside, returning from a meeting where all their hopes of - not escaping - but delaying their inevitable final donations have been destroyed. In a way, they are driving back to certain death. I found myself screaming at them to stop. To turn down some quiet side road and spend the rest of their lives together, instead of docilely submitting themselves to be used and thrown away - not in ignorance, but fully aware and willingly sacrificing themselves, because that is what they were born to do.
My feelings about this novel are brilliantly summed up in the following quote from The Guardian:
"It's about the steady erosion of hope. It's about repressing what you know, which is that in this life people fail one another, grow old and fall to pieces. It's about knowing that while you must keep calm, keeping calm won't change a thing. Beneath Kathy's flattened and lukewarm emotional landscape lies the pure volcanic turmoil, the unexpressed yet perfectly articulated, perfectly molten rage of the orphan. ... This extraordinary and, in the end, rather frighteningly clever novel isn't about cloning, or being a clone, at all. It's about why we don't explode, why we don't just wake up one day and go sobbing and crying down the street, kicking everything to pieces out of the raw, infuriating, completely personal sense of our lives never having been what they could have been." (M John Harrison, Clone Alone; Guardian Unlimited)
We are left wondering - but the temptation to dismiss the characters as not fully human, as somehow emotionally deficient, cannot stand against the caring relationships and creative expression that the reader has shared through Kathy's eyes. The worrying conclusion then becomes would we, too, with sufficient indoctrination, willingly acquiesce in such a fate?