Klara and the Sun (2021) is the newest novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, and the best description I can think of it is that it’s the newest novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. In other words, it’s very “Ishiguro”-like in its themes, its voice, its prose style and will call up memories of earlier works such as Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, which I consider high praise indeed.
The setting is a near-future where most children are “lifted” (genetically enhanced for intelligence) and do all of their schooling at home. Their social life, as it exists, consists of “interaction parties” and AF’s, or Artificial Friends. Klara, our narrator, is one such AF, and though not the most recent model she is, as many come to note, remarkable. Early on she is purchased as the companion for Josie, a 14-year-old lifted girl who, it’s gradually revealed, is suffering from a potentially fatal illness, one whose full history is only slowly revealed. Throughout the years between her purchase and Josie preparing for college, Klara observes Josie’s worsening health, her on-and-off relationship with the boy next door (who is not amongst the lifted), and her sometimes fraught interactions with her mother, whom she lives with, and her father, who lives on a type of commune for the “substituted” (those replaced by automation).
The themes, as noted, are similar to ones Ishiguro has investigated elsewhere: loneliness/isolation, the meaning and limits of service, the inherent pain of human existence, the meaning of life in the face of that pain, and of course, in the face of its inevitably quick passage. Familiar as they may be, the concepts are no less deserving of further exploration and Ishiguro does so here with his usual quietly elegant thoughtfulness and via a classic Ishiguro figure: one who observes from a position off to the side (or, on a social scale, lower down) and who plumbs surprising depths through relatively mundane language (though Klara and the Sun is not without its lyrical flourishes).
Klara-as-observer is emphasized from the opening line, as she tells us she and another AF for sale, “were mid-store … and could see through more than half of the window. So we were able to watch the outside … Unlike most AFs, unlike Rosa, I’d always longed to see more of the outside — and to see it in all its detail.” We needn’t trust Klara’s word on how unusual this is, for later, when she remarks on some of her observations of passing children, the store manager tells her, “Klara, you’re quite remarkable … You notice and absorb so much.” It’s the manager, too, who sometimes has to correct Klara’s observations, or at least give her some more knowledge about what she sees, since given her non-human state and her lack of experience in the world, not everything she sees is accurately interpreted. Something that plays out in ways small and all-too-large, as when Klara, who draws power from the sun, transfers that bit of engineering into a quasi-religious belief she turns to in hopes of an intercession for Josie.
Perception/point of view is highlighted as well when, especially in moments of emotional distress (and one of the many delights in Klara and the Sun is Klara’s sense of empathy), her vision becomes multifaceted, almost like an insect’s compound vision, with scenes separated into two or more “boxes,” as in an emotionally tense scene with Josie’s mother: “her face filled eight boxes … in one, for instance, her eyes were laughing cruelly, but in the next they were filled with sadness.” It’s a scene that’s both alien, mechanical (think of the split screens we’ve all become so used to in our lives now), and yet also utterly human — the way we struggle to comprehend another person’s thoughts and feelings, the way they themselves show a “different” face and are also a complex blend of emotions all at the same time, never just “one” thing. A concept introduced to her earlier in the novel, unsurprisingly by Manager, who explains to her after a particularly baffling observation, “sometimes … people feel a pain alongside their happiness.”
A good lesson in a book where everyone experiences some sort of pain: physical, emotional, the pain of absence, the pain of being bullied, the pain of difference, of isolation, of responsibility, of guilt, despair, fear and hope intermingled. Klara moves through all this pain, keenly observant of it all but also oddly optimistic. It is the artificial being in the novel who is constantly comforting the humans, telling them, albeit without any supporting reason or logic or evidence, that she has a “good feeling” about what will happen to Josie, that she “believes” there is hope that the humans are not seeing. Not that she doesn’t have her own moments of fear, moments where Ishiguro seems to pull away the veil of daily “civilized” life and reveal a more fundamental reality, an elemental battle: one seen in the shifts between sun and shade, light and shadow, blue sky and black pollution. Elemental forces seen in the form of the sun, or, as on a trip to a waterfall, the form of a penned bull:
I’d never before seen anything that gave, all at once, so many signals of anger and the wish to destroy. Its face, its horns, its cold eyes watching me all brought fear into my mind, but I felt something more, something stranger and deeper … some great error had been made that the creature should be allowed to stand in the sun’s pattern at all, this bull belonged somewhere deep in the ground far within the mud and darkness, and its presence on the grass could only have awful consequences.
The humans all have reason to fear “awful consequences,” often for decisions made in the past, some for decisions yet to be made firm. And the question of consequences for Klara is raised as well, especially as the book nears its end. It’s been clear from the start, from lines like, “In those early days, when Josie was still quite strong,” that Klara is narrating all this from a future point. What unfolds between the start and that narrative point I won’t detail to avoid spoilers, save to say Klara’s connection to Josie is more than just a companion, and then is even deeper than that. For those who have read Ishiguro, these revelations will come as no surprise, though they are no less moving for that.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of what Ishiguro does in Klara and the Sun. All sorts of echoes resonate throughout the work: images, language, concepts. The idea of “favoritism,” for instance, ripples outward from product brands to the teen’s interaction parties to transactional relationships to universal truths. Klara’s simple robotic language (interspersed with moments of poetic, almost divine, inspiration) is mirrored in a much less innocent manner by the way human society uses its euphemisms to cover up darker truths: “substituted,” “lifted,” “slow fade.” Drawings, paintings, design schematics move in and out of the text, often carrying a symbolic weight as well as serving their plot purposes, while the structure has a semi-circularity to it, with that “semi” carrying so much weight as well. And the ending is a quiet killer, soft and plain-spoken and also wise and moving. Klara and the Sun isn’t my favorite Ishiguro (that, um, remains Remains), but it’s not far off. Highly recommended.