Klara and the Sun

My Partner gave this novel by Kazuo Ishiguro to me as a birthday present and I have only just read it. I was saving it up as a treat because I felt I would like it. I do like it. It is among the best novels I’ve read this year.

The novel is told in the first person by Klara, an artificial friend (AF), a kind of android, who exists to be a friend and helper for young people, children or teenagers. We meet her first sitting or standing in the window of a shop to attract customers. She is watching the pedestrians walk by and thinking about their relationships with other people and other AFs. She seems quite insightful, but also naïve and trusting. We also soon learn that she has special feelings for the sun, and for sunlight. I suspect, but don’t think we are ever told, that the AFs need sunlight as an energy source.

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Klara is selected by a young girl (or teenager) called Josie as her AF. She chooses Klara despite the fact that Klara is an older model, not the most up-to-date one. Her mother, who pays for the purchase of Klara, has the weird requirement that Klara must be able to imitate the way Josie, who has some kind of illness, walks. This sets up a strangely foreboding plotline that is only resolved later in the story, when we find out the secret plans Josie’s mother has for Klara (aided by the sinister scientist Mr. Capaldi).

Klara is taken to live with Josie, her mother and Melania the housekeeper. The housekeeper is initially hostile to Klara but later they collaborate to help Josie, whose illness gets increasingly worse. There are tensions in the household caused by the complicated relationship between Josie and her mother. Eventually we learn that Josie is one of a cohort of special children who were somehow “lifted”. Being lifted turns them into talented genius with a bright future but bad social skills. It is also a dangerous procedure that can fail, leading to the child’s death. This is the reason for Josie’s strained relationship with her mother and the reason for her mother’s nefarious plans for Klara in case Josie should die.
Klara and Josie’s unlifted friend Rick work together to try to save Josie’s life. Klara has a spiritual understanding of the sun who is kind of like a god for her. She comes up with a plan that involves an act of sacrifice on her part and a bargain with her sun god. I don’t want to spoil the end, so I won’t divulge the plan or if it works out or not, but instead I’ll write a bit about Klara.

Klara is always ready to say “yes” to everyone if it can help her to alleviate their loneliness, which she thinks is the main goal of the people she meets. She doesn’t seem to understand (at least not at first) that people can have much darker motivations or that the way some try to avoid loneliness can lead to greater evil. She is therefore very helpful and not very much concerned about her own good. We see scattered throughout the novel instances when AFs are ill-treated and they seem to be helpless or blame themselves. Klara’s way of physically seeing the world is very interesting. She has a strange fragmented sight, especially when she is upset. It’s like she sees the world through fragmented windows – a great way of showing that she’s not actually human. She also has problems with orientation and balance when she’s outside in strange places.

The society in which the novel is set has dystopian characteristics. AF are used and discarded like things although judging by Klara they are sentient beings. They are even capable of developing a religion. Their existence and treatment raise complex ethical question, at least in the reader. “Unlifted” people are discriminated against. All these topics are subtly shown as the plot evolves. The novel has a calm style, there’s nothing hurried about it but still sometimes there is a feeling of suspense. Readers have to figure everything out as Klara does – the only difference being that readers are likely to be a lot more suspicious and less naïve than Klara.

The ending is muted and kind of sad in many ways, but also subtly hopeful (at least I felt so). Klara, as her name indicates is just a bright, clear and shining presence. I think she’s the character I found most memorable of all the characters I’ve read about this year. There’s been a lot of hype around the novel which I find justified. I whole-heartedly recommend it.

Keep safe, world.

3 thoughts on “Klara and the Sun

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