Klara and the Sun is the first novel from Kazuo Ishiguro since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017 and his 2015 novel, the Arthurian-inspired The Buried Giant. While delivery a very different main character and sketching in the outlines of a unique future world, Klara and the Sun is thematically consistent with much of Ishiguro’s work considering as it does the nature of humanity, what it means to serve or help others, and concepts of sacrifice.
The Klara of the title is an AF, or artificial friend. These diminutive robots, almost living dolls, have been created to be companions to lonely, isolated children. The opening section of the book finds Klara in a shop, hoping to be chosen to be placed in the window where she can not only observe life on the outside but also be fully in glare of the sun. Klara and her kind are solar powered and Klara herself has developed a cosmology, almost to the point of being a personal religion, around the power and beneficence of the sun. Although Klara’s model of AF has been superseded she is chosen by a teenager called Josie and bought by Josie’s mother to be her companion. The rest of the book follows Klara’s relationship with Josie and her family, and in doing so provides broad outlines of the society in which they live.
It turns out in this future that many parents are putting their children through a process called ‘uplift’ to give them educational advantages to the point where non-uplifted children are deliberately excluded from opportunity. In some cases, however, the treatment does not go well and in Josie’s case it has made her frail and possibly dying. Klara, seeing this, wants desperately to help, digging into her own personal solar religion to find hope for herself and for Josie.
As noted, this book is of a piece with much of Ishiguro’s work. Klara is a similar intuitive but naïve narrator as Kathy H in Never Let Me Go. Her commitment to services and maintaining an ordained social order echoes that of Stevens in The Remains of the Day. And there is often a dreamlike quality to the narrative that echoes works like The Buried Giant and The Unconsoled. To this end, Ishiguro only sketches the outlines of a future and lets the reader fill in the gaps. This future includes artificial intelligence, genetic manipulation of children and a resulting caste system, and there also seems to be fascist-style groups arming themselves against an unspecified other. But all of this detail is filtered through Klara’s point of view – the reader understands the finer points of these aspects of the society as much as Klara does, which is not much.
But the heart of this novel is Klara, her relationship with Josie and her growing understanding of what it means to be human. Klara learns about humanity by observing the people around her – the relationship between Josie and her mother and later her father, Josie’s relationship with Ricky, literally the boy next door (who has not been uplifted and is likely to be left behind by Josie and her peers) and Ricky’s relationship with his mother Helen. Klara is constantly trying to fit all of these perspectives and experiences into a coherent view of the world but also a guide to how she should act and react, particularly when she learns the family may have bigger plans for her.
Klara and the Sun is another outstanding novel from Ishiguro. While he is in some ways re-examining themes and issues that he has explored before, this book takes a different angle to those issues. Where Never Let Me Go focussed on service as sacrifice, Klara and the Sun is more interested in service as support and hope. This book is about looking towards the horizon and seeking to dream a better future into being. And it is no weaker for the fact that thought Klara, it is almost literal in that approach.
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Robert Goodman is a book reviewer, former Ned Kelly Awards judge and institutionalised public servant based in Sydney. This and over 450 more book reviews can be found on his website Pile By the Bed.