Kazuo Ishiguro and I go way back to 2009, a year after I started writing these reviews, when I read Never Let Me Go. While I adored that book and his best known The Remains of the Day, each of his subsequent works didn’t do much for me. So when Klara and the Sun kept shining down upon me from various bookshelves and corners of the internet, I was hesitant. Why keep reading an author who seems to be perpetually earning two-star ratings from you? Well, I took a chance, and in this case my risk was rewarded.
The eponymous Klara is an Artificial Friend, a kind of girlish android designed to be a companion to young people. Her kind is solar powered, so she yearns to see and feel the Sun and, during her time at the store where she is featured, Klara develops a kind of mythical reverence for the Sun. Bought for a 12-year-old girl named Josie, Klara has to adapt to leaving her store and being among quixotic humans and their unusual habits. Klara’s unusual perspicacity and observant nature, for an AF, means many of the people around her confide in her. Meanwhile, she develops her own almost superstitious idea for how she can aid her chronically ill companion.
I have said this in previous reviews of Ishiguro and will say it again: he is a master narrator. Klara narrates this book from her first-person perspective, and as such, the reader is limited by her limited understanding of the world and human society. At one point, she calmly describes something as “the colour of feces,” which made me laugh out loud because that is not really how most of us would describe something—or at least, we would use a more colloquial term. Similarly, she doesn’t understand the nature of the Sun and develops beliefs about its location, personality, temperament, and powers that are similar to what a child might conjecture about it. In many ways, Klara is a child, albeit one whom no one seems particularly careful to raise in a certain way.
It seems to me that so many of Ishiguro’s novels are ultimately about service. Klara and the main characters of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go share in common, regardless of their natures, a function of being in service to other people. Those other people have larger stories happening on the periphery of this story, stories into which we only receive glimpses through the limited narrative window that Ishiguro provides, because he is more interested in the people we often ignore and their stories. So what could have been a story about a genetically-augmented child, her unaugmented best friend, and issues of equity and disability in this future society is instead about how a companionable android experiences this society, makes inferences, and does her best to take care of her charge. The result is sweet, sometimes heartbreaking, and paradoxically very human.
This is a compelling and thought-provoking book. I suspect many will be frustrated by the vagueness of its worldbuilding. There is a timelessness to its setting, no grounding in state or year or politics. We just know that it isn’t now, though some of the issues will feel familiar. Likewise, Klara’s limited understanding of what people discuss means that while we can infer a lot more from the conversations she overhears than she can, we too are limited by how little we know about this world. So if you start reading this book and think, “Ugh, there’s too much happening here that Ishiguro never discusses,” then I wouldn’t blame you.
I think the brilliance of this book, and the reason I enjoyed it so much, is that unlike many novels where that paucity of worldbuilding is a weakness, I view it here as a strength. It forces the focus on Klara herself, and instead of spending time questioning the type of society that would create Artificial Friends, we must consider instead of the relationships between this android and her adoptive family. Josie, the Mother, Ricky—all of these people regard Klara in slightly different ways, sometimes in ways that reify her personhood and other times in ways that remind us she is a machine. This is a book of the interior mind, and it asks us to consider Klara’s mind more so than the external world that is responsible for shaping it.
The revelations towards the end of the book are interesting if not entirely unpredictable. Once we understand the true nature of Josie’s “portrait” and Klara’s involvement, it triggers are re-evaluation of what has happened previously. We also see Klara expressing far more agency than previously in the book, which I really enjoyed. If I have criticism of this book, it’s simply that the ending is very non-committal. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it sad, though I could understand why some would see it that way. But it leaves me wondering what Ishiguro wants us to take away from the story—not in a “oh, that was thought provoking” way but rather in a “I wish you had spelled it out a little more for me” kind of way. I attribute this mostly to the fact that Klara and Josie’s relationship lacks a deep emotional dimension that we have come to expect from these kinds of stories of human–android connection. When the time comes for them to separate, this separation happens in a routine and unremarkable way, and the lack of pathos there left me wanting more.
Still, Klara and the Sun has rather salvaged Ishiguro for me, and maybe I will keep reading his work. Or maybe I will go back and re-evaluate his older work that I enjoyed and find it wanting—who knows! If, like me, you’ve been left not enjoying Ishiguro’s most recent novels, give this one a try. Regardless, he remains someone whose writing and storytelling never fails to get you thinking about the characters he puts on the page.