book review: Klara and the sun

There’s a particular mood to Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels. Beginning a new one is like entering a familiar building, a restrained building like the Baillieu library at Melbourne University with its fragrance of old books, its gentle lighting, its quietness. There are definite limits, an interiority. Through the first person narrative of one of Ishiguro’s characters, you peer at the outer world from your narrowed perspective with a penetrating gaze but with a consequent failure to see some of the most significant elements threatening you.

Through the experiences of the puzzled and disappointed artist unconscious of his anachronism in An artist of the floating world, the emotionally repressed butler in The remains of the day, or the cloned woman doomed as an organ donor in Never let me go, as a reader you gradually become aware of both a tragic one-sidedness and of a fuller world outside of their consciousness that these characters have neglected to perceive. Ishiguro even admits he is writing the same novel over and over. Raised in England and from a Japanese background, his gentle revelations benefit from lead characters whose subservience, politeness and reticence both limit and hone their experiences in ways that create a subtle and disturbing evocation for us as readers who gradually become privy to what is not perceived.

All of us have our particularity and perhaps we are all also aiming for a broader gaze. Which is what makes Klara and the Sun so moving. Klara is an AF, an artificial friend, with all the limitations imposed by algorithms and a binary structure. Purchased by ‘the Mother’ to befriend her young and sickly daughter, she enters a world beyond the store where she has been waiting to be pressed into service. She is a naïve but insightful phenomenologist, trained to observe and learn with an objectivity and specificity that most humans cannot achieve. She is keenly aware of the sun and its movements, its ‘patterns’, as it provides her with her own ‘nourishment’. Maybe this is another nod to Ishiguro’s Japanese heritage. In the Shinto belief system, the sun goddess, Amaterasu, is ruler of the heavenly realm. Other cosmologies also acknowledge the centrality, power and benevolence of the sun.

In an epiphanic sequence, Klara’s belief in the restorative powers of the sun become the focus of an effort to heal Josie, the girl for whom she is an ever-present friend. It is subtly implied that Josie’s illness may be the result of the Mother’s choice to let her be ‘lifted’ (gene edited). There is a strong hint too of the mythical or the wonder story here, in the repetition of Klara’s tasks, the need for sacrifice, the courageous journeys beyond the familiar, and the intercession of unusual helpers and hindrances. Klara’s pure capacity to observe and not to judge is also salutary here.

There are many themes Ishiguro presents with the same clear-sighted, non-interpretive objectivity as his lead character. At what price do we interfere with human development or dance with the dangers of the virtual and artificial? What is a human life or human experience? What are the perils (pollution, fascism, social inequality) that we ignore or which lie outside our perception because we have come to accept them as inevitable? The world lurks at the boundaries of Klara’s experience with hints of fear and violence – how do we avoid engaging with this kind of fear and choose love? At the heart of the novel is this question of love. Love it seems is not to possess or to desire another but to allow that being freedom. It requires effort and sacrifice. It involves change, transformation.

Ultimately and after she has more than served her purpose and also avoided the Mother’s desperate designs, Klara is neglected and then forsaken – like many digital and other ‘toys’. We see glimpses of her inevitable stoicism and her trained sensitivity unto the last, especially in a final encounter with the store Manager who retains a loyalty to AFs even when they have lost favour through an implied evolution into dangerous independence.

I wept at the end. Not just for Klara although her journey is deeply affecting. I wept for us as humans and what we are blind to but long to see more clearly. I’m also grateful to Ishiguro and his masterpiece of a novel for its sincere and subtle power to teach me a little more about love.

Klara and the sun, Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber and Faber, 2021

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