I just finished reading and teaching Never Let Me Go for the second time this year. I am writing this post because the aspect of the novel I find most meaningful is one that I never fully bring into the classroom: Norfolk, which their guardian Miss Emily calls “the lost corner of England.” This is what the lost and found at Hailsham is called, and that colors how the students think about Norfolk. In recollecting the students’ idea of Norfolk as the lost corner, Ruth claims, “When we lost something precious, and we’d looked and looked and still couldn’t find it, then we didn’t have to be completely heartbroken. We still had that last bit of comfort, thinking one day, when we were grown up, and we were free to travel around the country, we could always go and find it again in Norfolk” (Ishiguro 66). Students at Hailsham are granted the privilege of collecting possessions, over which they enjoy an ownership they do not have over their bodies. Even as their organs are taken away, they can still keep their collections of personal belongings. The possibility of losing a possession reminds them of everything else that can be taken away from them – their organs, their friends, and eventually their lives. Because of the loaded value of possessions, Norfolk becomes a kind of heaven. Adding to this sense is the fact that the students have never seen a picture of Norfolk: “the fact that we had never seen a picture of the place only added to its mystique” (66).
The end of the novel returns to the idea of Norfolk as heaven or a gathering place for those who have been lost. After Kathy’s beloved Tommy has completed (died) from donating his organs, she drives to Norfolk and sees rubbish floating around a field surrounded by a fence that holds the rubbish and keeps it from floating away. By this point, Kathy must in some way be aware that she and her friends are essentially being treated as disposable rubbish, used for their parts. Amidst all the rubbish, she has the sense that if she waits “long enough, a tiny figure would appear on the horizon across the field, and gradually get larger until I’d see it was Tommy, and he’d wave, maybe even call. The fantasy never got beyond that—I didn’t let it—and though the tears rolled down my face, I wasn’t sobbing or out of control” (287-288). Norfolk thus holds out the consoling possibility that she could be reunited with her love and who has just died, and her other friends who are treated as rubbish, again.
What I find so moving about thinking about Norfolk as heaven is what that implies about religion. Perhaps like the idea of Norfolk, religious faith could emerge out of a consciousness of our intolerable vulnerability. Regardless of how moving I find this novel’s engagement with the afterlife, I don’t share this with my students. Here’s my reasoning:
Religious students wouldn’t appreciate the implication that religion isn’t true but merely a coping mechanism.
Non-religious students would be alienated because it would seem that I was presenting a certain religious stance as a natural consequence (among others!) of being aware of vulnerability to suffering.
I also don’t spend much time on Norfolk because I think my interest is motivated by my personal experience of faith, which clouds my ability to evaluate if such a discussion would resonate with others. I find it moving to relate to my own Catholic religious practice as a self-compassionate response to the form of suffering to which I am most susceptible. Kathy H, Tommy, and Ruth have a lot of vulnerabilities that everyone to some degree shares, but this novel is so meaningful for me because the narrator Kathy H shares my unaccountably acute consciousness of the possibility of losing one’s basic dignity and personhood. Stephen Cope says, “each of us feels some aspect of the world’s suffering acutely. It tears at our hearts. Others don’t see it or don’t care. But we feel it. And we must pay attention. We must act. This little corner of the world is ours to transform” (The Great Work of Your Life 64). Cope argues that suffering that we care about most is an important source of life direction. I would add that when the suffering we care about most is suffering we anticipate having to undergo ourselves, it also provides a direction for faith, or if like Kathy H one would rather not go down that road, then it provides a direction for a fantasy which is experienced as equally precious.