Review: Kazuo Ishiguro – Klara and the Sun (2021)

8/10

Klara is a robot, an Artificial Friend (AF) whose purpose in life is to be bought to become a companion for lonely children from wealthy families. The story starts in the store where Klara stands around – sometimes in the storefront windows to attract customers – waiting to be sold. It is clear from the start that not all the AFs have the same personalities. Klara is a much better observer than the other robots and has a better grasp on reading body language and emotions. Before soon, she catches the eye of the girl Josie and is purchased.

Klara and The Sun is a novel that fits snugly inside Ishiguro’s bibliography. Klara has the same lack of control over her life as the characters in Never Let Me Go (2005) and occupies the same position of supportive servitude as the butler in The Remains of the Day (1989). Powerlessness, loyalty, love, servitude, loneliness and quiet observation are among the themes that Ishiguro loves to pick up and his story for Klara is tailor-made for them. These themes, along with observing humanity from an outside perspective, are the main focus and not so much the complexities of artificial intelligence and how all of that works.

I’ve said this in my review for Never Let Me Go, but Ishiguro is a master of the first-person perspective. He voices his characters with a gentleness, clarity and sincerity that is very much his own and I have never read the like, anywhere. To be honest, Never Let Me Go is still slightly better in that regard.

Klara is plainly self-aware. There are some behaviors hard-coded in her, like an unquestioned loyalty to and support for the children in her care. Leaving aside the question of how realistic that is, for Ishiguro she’s a character with a “love” that is purer than what we find among humans, which is messy and can be cruel, and how Klara is treated of course reflects that. In contrast to Klara, our own flaws become apparent. It’s a very recognisable role for a robot character, really, to reflect our own nature back at us. Compare this to Sonmi-451 from David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004) or David from the film AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001). It’s a fairy tale decanted into a sci-fi setting.

I had written a whole piece about how the story feels like it has been done a million times before. Not just the robot angle but the sentimental Pinocchio story too, and that even Ishiguro has written this story before, in sf and non-sf settings. I’ve deleted it because it felt unfair to put so much weight on it. Ishiguro creates some social dilemmas around robots and people’s emotions that I haven’t seen worked out so poignantly. What was an issue though, was that I was missing a hook to draw me in. Lines on the back like “do you believe in the human heart” or “what does it mean to love” are just cliched placeholders. What makes this worth reading?

A third into the book I started to understand: the story’s greatest value lies in individual scenes. Klara with Josie among her friends, Klara with Josie and the boy next door, Klara with Josie among her mother and housekeeper. These are scenes of emotional complexity. Klara doesn’t understand half of it, but her presence is disruptive and through her eyes we see the unspoken tensions, the worries, the deeper emotional connections, the group dynamics, the social masks. And the social changes of a world a few decades into the future. It is all super controlled by Ishiguro; very well written, with good prose and fully realised characters.

And it is Ishiguro’s modus to keep the purpose of his stories hidden until the latter parts of the novel, instead painting an elaborate picture of moods and feelings that slowly unfold what is going on here. It’s a beautiful but a bit unnerving story. It goes in directions that are quite touching and heavy and I was really impressed by it. I can’t give it a really high score because I kept finding excuses to put off reading. It’s not a book that demands to be read. But the second half really had an emotional impact on me.

After three successful speculative fiction novels in a row, is Ishiguro still a “literary writer trying out sf”? Or is he fully “in transition”? Time will tell.

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11 Responses to Review: Kazuo Ishiguro – Klara and the Sun (2021)

  1. Andreas says:

    Wow, that cover!
    Thanks for your review, you totally won me over. Up on my tbr!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. piotrek says:

    I love the atmosphere of Ishiguro’s novels. “The Buried Giant” is my favourite, “Remains of the Day” was also great… I’m going through his catalogue slowly, but sure, and I was curious about his latest work. Thanks for the review, I’m convinced I should read it!

    Liked by 1 person

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