Review by David Starkey
Like the narrators of Kazuo Ishiguro’s two most famous novels—Stevens of Remains of the Day and Kathy H. of Never Let Me Go—Klara of his latest novel, Klara and the Sun,devotes herself to the good of others at the expense of her own well-being. As a narrative strategy, it’s both affecting and infuriating. One admires Klara’s selflessness, while simultaneously wanting to shake her and say, “Hey, think of yourself for once, why don’t you?”
Klara is an AF, or Artificial Friend, an extremely sophisticated robot companion for teens preparing to go off to college. She’s been engineered to do everything she can to make her companion comfortable and, above all, not lonely. That’s an ironic gesture on Ishiguro’s part because in this novel, everyone—whether human or artificially intelligent—seems forlorn. Ishiguro constructs his near-future society sentence by deadpan sentence, and Klara’s first-person voice, by turns flat and sentimental, emphasizes the characters’ isolation and social awkwardness.
The sad, poignant life of the clones who donate parts of their bodies until they “complete” and die in Never Let Me Go casts a long shadow on the fate of the Artificial Friends of Klara and the Sun. As in the earlier novel, because the protagonists’ lives are so limited, apparently minor events, like a trip away from home, are freighted with heavy symbolic resonance. And a character like Manager, the caretaker and salesperson of the AFs, feels like a direct corollary of Madame, the clones’ warden, in Never Let Me Go.
Klara is a keen observer of everything that passes before her eyes, and as a being new to sentience, she appreciates, and speculates on, every incident she witnesses. For instance, after watching a shouting match between two taxi drivers, Klara, programmed for non-violence, tries to imagine being so angry she might hurt someone else: “I tried to find the beginnings of such a feeling in my mind. It was useless, though, and I’d always end up laughing at my own thoughts.” The AFs are solar-powered; therefore, Klara is particularly attentive to the movement, and absence, of the sun. Indeed, as the book’s title suggests, her obsession with the sun’s powers—both real and imaginary—fuels much of the plot.
But the quietly effective storyline is less important than Klara’s relationship with a very limited cast of characters. Josie, Klara’s human friend, suffers from an initially unidentified life-threatening illness. Josie chooses Klara from the AF store not because Klara is the most recent and sophisticated model, but because she seems the most intuitive and kind. Josie’s mother—always referred to “the Mother,” as though the entire world revolved around this one family unit—has managed to keep her “high-rank” job, despite the AI revolution that is taking place, mostly off-stage. Her feelings for Klara are maternal, but in a deeply disquieting way. Then there is Rick, Josie’s childhood sweetheart, who, for reasons that emerge later, has been cast out of Josie’s social circle of college-bound teens, despite his obvious brilliance.
Overall, Klara and the Sun is a depressing read, yet Ishiguro’s meticulous control of tone, character and action does not make the novel feel contrived. Instead, the careful planning for which he is renowned gives Klara’s fate a sense of exquisitely mournful inevitability.