The past, filtered through memory, has always played odd tricks in Kazuo Ishiguro's fiction. It is a place full of arcane rules and uncertain events, the meaning of which can be decoded only gradually. This was the case from Ishiguro's first novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982), with its lonely Japanese protagonist recalling postwar Nagasaki from his house in the English suburbs. The very business of living, the novel suggested, can make us strangers to our former selves, a theme Ishiguro has sustained carefully in his subsequent fiction, through variations of form and subject matter.
Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro's strange new novel, approaches the same idea through a story set in England in the late 1990s. It is told from the point of view of 31-year-old Kathy H, who is about to change her vocation, having been a "carer" for more than a decade. It is not immediately clear what Kathy's job involves; we know that she looks after patients of some sort. Kathy herself is a pragmatic but slightly lonely figure who, as she drives from one medical centre to another, is preoccupied with memories of Hailsham, the boarding school she attended as a child. Hailsham occupies an idealised place in her imagination and is presented, in part, as a sanctuary from adulthood in which the young Kathy was able to develop close friendships - with, for example, the calculating Ruth and short-tempered Tommy. However, as one memory leads to the next, and as each event Kathy recounts is examined in the light of another, it becomes clear that there is something extraordinary about the students at Hailsham and their careful seclusion from the outside world.
The friends are clones, who have been nurtured at Hailsham only to serve adult roles as donors of organs to human beings. In that sense, they are bodies rather than individuals, and the relationships and ideas of selfhood that appear so crucial to them are secondary to their medical function. "Your lives are set out for you," one of their teachers tells them, unable to bear their chatter about possible professions. "You'll become adults, then before you're old, before you're even middle-aged, you'll start to donate your vital organs. That's what each of you was created to do. You're not like the actors you watch on your videos, you're not even like me."
This unusual premise, emerging through Kathy's memories, does not lead us into the realm of speculative science fiction. Unlike Margaret Atwood in Oryx and Crake (2003), Ishiguro is not interested in using the idea of cloning to conjure up a panoramic dystopia. His attention remains fixed on intimate things - on the small social groupings within a school, on the nuances of personal relationships. The larger world remains a distant, blurred backdrop, and is brought into focus only at the end. What holds our attention before then is the way Ishiguro uses the subject of cloning to focus on questions of human existence. Although the story of Kathy and her friends is especially poignant because of their status as clones, we can still identify with their predicament. Does not all childhood involve an interplay between knowledge and ignorance, hope and fear?
Ishiguro has always been good at presenting the past - and childhood - as a kind of universal affliction, but probably never so well as in this novel. There are moments when the pace of the narration seems slow, circling back endlessly on memories and desires, but, in a novel about transience, there is a point to this. The mythology of Hailsham involves the idea of a "lost corner" where all that has been mislaid will end up sooner or later:
Someone - I can't remember who it was - claimed after the lesson that what Miss Emily had said was that Norfolk was England's "lost corner", where all the lost property found in the country ended up. Somehow this idea caught on and soon became the accepted fact virtually throughout our entire year.
The past may be a realm of loss, full of things that have to be let go of, but, in this wise novel, it is also a place where lost things may be recovered, and a form of redemption found.
Siddhartha Deb's new novel, Surface, will be published by Picador in April