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Kathy H., the thirty-one-year-old narrator, introduces herself as a “carer.” She explains that she has held this job for almost twelve years, although she will be leaving it in about eight months. Kathy takes pride in her work, noting that the “donors” for whom she cares are rarely agitated and tend to recover quickly after giving donations. As a result, she has gained certain privileges including the opportunity to choose her donors. Kathy says that other carers may resent her for this, especially since she tends to choose donors who attended Hailsham. She explains that this is how she reconnected with her childhood friends Ruth and Tommy. Kathy used to resist the urge to look back on her school days. Then, one of her donors made a bad first donation. In the days before he “completed,” he asked her repeatedly for stories of Hailsham and refused to talk about his own apparently grim childhood. This experience made Kathy realize how lucky she and her friends were to attend Hailsham.
Kathy sees many reminders of her school days while driving around the country, including sports pavilions that look like the one at Hailsham. She recalls an afternoon at Hailsham when she was about twelve years old. In the memory, Kathy is lounging in the Hailsham pavilion with Ruth and a few other girls. The pavilion is a favorite hideout where they can gossip away from the eyes of their “guardians.” Through the window, they watch a group of boys refuse to pick Tommy for a football (soccer) game in order to provoke him into a temper tantrum. The girls gossip about how Tommy has never tried to be creative in their art classes. Meanwhile, Kathy worries that Tommy will ruin his favorite blue polo shirt as he stomps around in the mud. She walks over to Tommy and tries to calm him down, but he continues to flail his arms and accidentally hits her in the face. Kathy points out that his shirt is covered in mud. Tommy brushes off her concern, but then seems to regret it. Kathy returns to her friends, feeling frustrated and aware that the other students are watching her.
Kathy continues to recall her childhood at Hailsham. A few days after his tantrum, Tommy stops her on the stairs to apologize for his behavior. Kathy feels embarrassed to be addressed in such a public place, as the stairs are filled with students heading to and from their weekly medical examinations. However, she accepts his apology. The other boys continue to play pranks on Tommy, who responds with more tantrums. One night in the girls’ dormitory, Kathy discusses the situation with Ruth and their other friends. Ruth says that Tommy needs to try harder to be creative if he wants the teasing to stop. She points out that Tommy does not submit anything to the Exchanges, quarterly art exhibitions at which the students can trade their works with one another, and purchase works with school-issued tokens.
Kathy interrupts this memory to explain that students skilled at “creating” generally earned the most respect from their peers at Hailsham, a phenomenon encouraged by the Exchanges. She adds that Tommy’s struggle with creativity began years earlier in art class, when he made an intentionally childish watercolor of an elephant to get the other students to laugh. Unaware that this was purposeful, the sympathetic guardian Miss Geraldine praised his efforts instead of scolding him. After that incident, the other students started to mock Tommy’s artistic efforts. Kathy believes that Tommy tried briefly to improve, but soon began exaggerating the childish quality of his pictures to cover up his lack of ability. He also started throwing tantrums in response to the teasing from his classmates. Kathy’s memories return to the aftermath of the football incident. Although the pranks continue, Tommy suddenly stops losing his temper. The other boys lose interest in teasing him, and start to include him in their games. Puzzled, Kathy finds Tommy in the lunch line and asks about his new attitude. Tommy attributes it to the guardian Miss Lucy, who recently told him that he did not have to be creative if he did not want to be. Kathy thinks this is a joke and walks away angrily. Tommy promises to explain, and asks her to meet him at the pond after lunch.
Although Never Let Me Go takes place in the 1990s, Kathy’s opening lines suggest that this is not straightforwardly historical fiction, but instead a parallel universe. She casually refers to unfamiliar terms like “carers” and “donors,” which seem to be well known and accepted roles within her world. Kathy does not explain these roles, indicating an assumption that her audience is already familiar with them. In contrast, Kathy does not expect her audience to know about life at the Hailsham school. She often pauses to explain Hailsham rituals and traditions, like the Exchanges. This shows Kathy’s assumption that her audience has not experienced Hailsham, and evokes the sense that her idyllic childhood was somewhat exceptional. The story about Kathy’s donor reinforces this sense, since he seems to yearn for her childhood memories in place of his own. This donor’s desire to forget his past reverses Kathy’s desire to remember and record her own. Ironically, Hailsham proves central to both his process of forgetting and her process of remembering. For the donor, Hailsham is an imagined escape from his own memories. For Kathy, Hailsham is the way into recalling and making sense of her memories.
Read more about the power of memory as a theme.
The impulse to look back on the past is characteristic of Kathy, who sees ghostly echoes of Hailsham wherever she goes. Kathy even uses her role as a carer to reconnect with Hailsham, choosing to care for donors who are former Hailsham students. Although she is preparing for a major transition in her own life, she spends her time remembering her childhood instead of looking ahead to the future. Kathy’s focus on the past also affects her narration, which can be disorienting for the reader. Kathy does not recall the events of her life in chronological order. She often narrates by association, jumping back and forth in time as details from one memory trigger her recollection of others. While Kathy’s memories move primarily between the present and her time at Hailsham in these chapters, she also refers to other moments from her life in brief asides. Her narrative style reflects the process of recollection itself. Sifting through a jumble of memories, Kathy offers an account that is incomplete, episodic, and out of order. Her style also raises questions about her reliability as a narrator. Only Kathy’s point of view is available to the reader. She presents other characters and events subjectively, and at times she also admits that she may be misremembering details.
Read more about Kathy as a reliable narrator.
Hailsham itself seems in many ways to be a privileged boarding school, but puzzling details like the weekly medical exams and the emphasis on artistic achievement suggest that there is more to Hailsham than meets the eye. Kathy’s memory of the Hailsham sports pavilion establishes her relationships with both Ruth and Tommy, and conveys information about all three of their personalities. Tommy’s lack of creativity makes him a social outcast at Hailsham. His lonely tantrum on the field reflects this outsider status, and highlights his emotional volatility. While Tommy abandons self-awareness in his blind rage, Kathy exhibits constant restraint and self-consciousness in her attempt to calm him down. Kathy also contrasts with Ruth in her response to Tommy’s tantrum. Ruth loudly blames Tommy for his own mistreatment, reflecting her position as a vocal and confident ringleader in her social group. Meanwhile, Kathy quietly watches Tommy through the window and worries about his favorite shirt. She positions herself as a careful and sympathetic observer, far less direct and more private about her opinions. However, Kathy also presents her view of Tommy as the more nuanced one—only she considers Tommy’s feelings, realizing how upset he will be if he ruins the shirt.
Read an in-depth analysis of Tommy.
Kathy’s attempt to comfort Tommy shows her concern for him, as well as her sensitivity to his feelings. But it also shows her discomfort with public spectacle, since she walks away when she realizes that other students may be watching. Kathy also becomes embarrassed when speaking to Tommy in the stairwell, another crowded public place. Her adolescent anxiety about being seen or overheard seems partly to do with Tommy himself, and the gossip that she might provoke by speaking with a boy. Yet it also reflects the lack of privacy at Hailsham, where the constant presence of other students and guardians means that Kathy is often under surveillance. Kathy’s first memory of her teenage self takes place in the sports pavilion, which emphasizes her value for privacy. The seclusion of the sports pavilion makes it a unique sanctuary at Hailsham, a private hideaway where she can observe others without herself being overheard or seen. Tommy demonstrates little awareness of being observed when he throws his tantrum, showing that he is a less careful guard of his emotions than Kathy. But his more cautious attitude about Miss Lucy suggests that he does value keeping certain information secret. His decision to tell Kathy about the talk with Miss Lucy also reflects his trust in Kathy.
Read an in-depth analysis of Kathy.