A couple of weeks back on Twitter, I reacted to the floods of people discussing the new Kazuo Ishiguro book with a tongue-in-cheek comment lamenting the fact that I hadn’t received a review copy. Unfortunately, it’s always best to be careful when moaning about #FirstWorldProblems, and with the #NotBitter hashtag still ringing in my ears, I came back from a walk the next day to find a parcel waiting for me on my doorstop – I wonder if you can guess what was inside…
Anyway, to cut a long story short, I *was* fortunate enough to get a copy of the Ishiguro book, albeit after the embargo had already been lifted, so let’s see if it was worth all the embarrassment 😉
Klara and the Sun (published by Faber & Faber, my copy courtesy of the Australian distributor, Allen & Unwin) is an interesting novel set some time in the future in a society fairly similar to ours, albeit with a few major changes. The first of these is clear from the start when we’re introduced to Klara, an AF (artificial friend), who sits in the shop window waiting to catch the eye of a passing child who might wish to take her home as a companion. Although it takes a while, Klara is eventually picked out by Josie, and a new life begins for our AF in a nice house in the countryside with her young owner.
While Klara’s happy enough with her existence, apart from having to keep on the right side of the irascible housekeeper, Melania, it soon becomes clear that all is not well with poor Josie. Her health issues keep her confined to her room for months at a time, and along with Josie’s best friend, Rick, Klara attempts to keep the girl’s spirits up. As it turns out, though, that’s not the real reason for Klara’s presence in the house. The sicker Josie gets, the more her mother turns to Klara, eventually revealing her plans to cope with Josie’s condition – plans which revolve around the android companion.
Before the book’s publication, rumours spread regarding similarities with Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go, and I can confirm that these are very close to the mark. There are striking parallels in the near-future setting and a core idea of technological advances bringing ethical dilemmas in their wake. This time, though, we’re looking at a slightly different aspect of this area, with a focus on artificial intelligence and genetic manipulation.
The story is told by Klara, a slightly naïve narrator. Highly intelligent, albeit with rather narrow horizons at times, her special nature is emphasised from her first appearance:
The day went on, the Sun kept us warm, and I could see Rosa was very happy. But I noticed too that she hardly looked at anything, fixing her eyes constantly on the first Tow-Away Zone sign just in front of us. Only when I pointed out something to her would she turn her head, but then she’d lose interest and go back to looking at the sidewalk outside and the sign.
p.7 (Faber & Faber, 2021)
It soon becomes apparent that Klara is far more perceptive than other AFs, even those of the more advanced B3 model, and her curiosity helps her learn more about the world as she comes into contact with more people. Eventually, it’s this difference that leads her to be chosen by Josie’s mother and taken to the family home.
If Klara is our way into the story, in truth it’s Josie that’s at the heart of the tale. She’s a bright young girl with health problems, but it gradually becomes clear that this is more than just bad luck, as her condition is a side effect of some genetic tampering, or ‘lifting’, as it’s called. The world Ishiguro has created is mostly recognisable, but certain advances have caused radical changes, and not always for the better.
Another of these involves a two-tier society hinted at throughout the novel. Where Josie’s family has a spacious dwelling with a live-in housekeeper, Rick and his mother have a very different existence:
While viewing from a distance, I’d already estimated that Rick’s house wasn’t as high-rank as Josie’s. Now I could see that many of its white paint boards had become gray – even brown in some places – and three of the windows were dark rectangles with no curtains or blinds within them. (p.137)
Rick’s mother Helen has opted out, and the pair are the poorer for it, and as we see at a party held for Josie, while people are mostly polite, this refusal to conform leads to an outsider status. Early on we see hints of this when Klara mentions ‘high-status clothes’, indicating a world where social prowess is visible at a glance.
The reader is in a similar situation to Klara, wanting to learn more and reliant on a drip-feed of information about the new world, and the AF is an excellent guide, a classic Ishiguro narrator. Her simple voice is effective, and there are constant reminders that this is all narration (‘Looking back...’, ‘As I’ve said…‘). Of course, it’s not that she’s keeping things from us, it’s more that she doesn’t know them herself (or didn’t at the time the events happened), and is even at times unaware that there’s something she should be aware of.
It makes for a fascinating examination of human nature, through the eyes of someone who isn’t human. As she spends more time in the human world, Klara learns how people interact, the secrets they keep and the fine line between love and anger:
At the same time, what was becoming clear to me was the extent to which humans, in their wish to escape loneliness, made maneuvres that were very complex and hard to fathom, and I saw it was very possible that the consequences of Morgan’s Falls had at no stage been within my control. (p.113)
Her changing view of what it means to be human reflects the central premise of the book: can science one day uncover the essence of humanity and replicate it, or is there something indefinable that makes us human, a light deep inside that could never be replicated, no matter how far technology advances?
As is the case with most major releases, there are a range of conflicting opinions being tossed around. One common criticism has been of the light, YA-like, nature of the book, and although there’s some truth in that, it generally works well. Klara, despite her advanced nature, is childlike in her views, especially in her belief in the power of the sun. It’s understandable given that she’s solar-powered, but this naïve faith develops into a quasi-religious attitude towards an entity she’s convinced will help Josie recover, and our knowledge that she’s being foolish just adds to the character.
Other criticisms seem more justified, though. There’s only so far most readers will be willing to suspend their disbelief and do without a closer knowledge of the writer’s world, and in Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro pushes us much too far. While the first half of the book moves along nicely, the third quarter gets rather messy, and by the time it becomes clear that we’re not really going to get any answers, many readers may already have switched off. The actual twist in the story, involving the family’s plans for Josie and Klara, is brushed aside fairly promptly, and there’s a confusion of plot strands that never really feels resolved.
In fact, several concepts that Ishiguro introduces in Klara and the Sun seem to be dropped in front of the reader and simply abandoned. I noticed early on the use of American English (well, words that blatantly mark the text as ‘American’), and much is initially made of Rick and his mother being English. However, this ends up going nowhere, with the reader wondering what the point of this heavily marked plot feature was. The same can be said for the way Klara identifies people as ‘black-skinned’ on several occasions. Obviously, Ishiguro intends to say something here, but again it’s an idea that simply fizzles out as the book winds its way down, leaving the reader to wonder if that’s all the writer meant to say, or whether the meaning simply got lost in the wash.
A disappointment, then? Perhaps, but only judged against Ishiguro’s other work. If you’re measuring it against The Remains of the Day or The Unconsoled, you may well find this latest novel wanting. Taken on its own merits, though, Klara and the Sun is an enjoyable book with an interesting take on the way our technologically driven society is heading, and the human price we pay for this progress. In fact, as negative as I may have been in my reflections here, I rather liked it in parts, and I suspect that when I drag it off the shelves for the inevitable reread in a few years’ time, I’ll probably enjoy it even more. I suppose that’s the trouble with high-profile books – they rarely live up to the hype, even when they’re actually not all that bad…