Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Published by Faber & Faber, 2021
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Being Ishiguro’s first release since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, this was always going to generate a lot of buzz, drawing in casual readers and hardened critics alike. Thankfully, Klara and the Sun is more than capable of pleasing this broad readership spectrum: It has great commercial appeal thanks to its pertinent themes and readability, while Ishiguro’s signature insight into the human condition and subtle emotional delivery heighten the experience.
The blurb actually gives very little away in terms of plot and theme, covering only the book’s opening pages. This was clearly deliberate, and so I too will avoid detail beyond the fact that the story opens with the eponymous Klara, an Artificial Friend (a highly sophisticated humanoid machine designed to serve as a companion to a child), as she observes people from the store, waiting to be purchased.
The capabilities of Artificial Friends are never up for debate; society has clearly reached the point at which AI has gained full sentience, meaning these machines now exhibit independent thought, emotion, and learning. This makes Klara a fascinating POV character, as she possesses the kind of wide-eyed innocence and desire to please you’d expect from a child, with the intelligence and eloquence of an adult, and all without the level of cold detachment you’d normally expect from a “robot” narrator.
Presenting us with the story through Klara’s eyes was very clever on Ishiguro’s part, for a number of reasons. The world-building is eked out slowly throughout the novel, the characters often skirting around contextual details that would reveal more about how their society operates, and the true depth of what is going on narratively. This kind of understated yet drawn-out mystery would have felt forced and frustrating if told in third person, or from a human character’s perspective, but Klara’s unique position means Ishiguro can get away with it. After all, why would humans feel the need to contextualise their lives for the benefit of a machine? Why would Klara prioritise the same information as us when her entire worldview is different from ours? By having us learn about this world at the same pace as Klara, Ishiguro is able to maintain an undercurrent of intrigue, delivering quietly devastating revelations along the way, as more and more pieces fall into place.
This leads nicely onto the prose itself, which is simple yet effective. There’s a charm and a formality to the tone, but a complete avoidance of flowery language, all of which are befitting of Klara’s characterisation. In that respect, it’s not a “beautifully” written book, but there is undeniable skill in the control Ishiguro has over his plotting, characters, and pacing.
It’s hard to talk about further specifics without dipping into spoiler territory, and the book’s marketing was clearly designed so that readers can go in knowing as little as possible (not unlike Ishiguro’s hit, Never Let Me Go). Suffice to say, this is a nuanced exploration of science-fiction’s greatest questions: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to love? Where should we draw the moral and ethical lines when it comes to scientific progress? In a capitalist society, will advancements in technology improve equality or simply fuel further class division due to discrepancies in access and social standing?
My only real reservation was the handling of the denouement, which I found a little too brief. While I admire Ishiguro’s commitment to subtlety, the full implications of the book’s final turns felt somewhat untapped. Having laid the groundwork so cleverly, I think he’d more than earned the kind of emotional sucker punch he ultimately shied away from.
That said, Ishiguro gets to the very heart of humanity with a deft hand; exposing our best and worst traits, while paying tribute to the persistence of hope, and faith in the wonder of the natural world. I was compelled throughout, only realising the true extent of the book’s power upon reaching its final pages. I’m intrigued to see how this one stays with me over time.