Kazuo Ishiguro is a multi-award-winning novelist, screenwriter, musician, and short-story writer. He was born in Japan and moved to Britain in 1960 when he was five. His Booker prize-winning novel The Remains of The Day was adapted for the big screen (1993) as was Never Let Me Go (2010).
Klara and the Sun is his eighth and most recent novel; his first since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017 (no pressure to like this book, then!) and, as I’m late to the Ishiguro party, it is the first of his books that I’ve read.
I’m sure when writing this dystopian novel, the author never imagined that the concept of home-schooling, which features very much as a futuristic concept, would be part and parcel of his readers’ present; and one with which we are now almost at ease. I’m equally sure he didn’t expect that the depiction of a scene where several young teens and their parents socialise freely in the same room would elicit inward cries of “what about masks, what about social distancing?”! That the implausible has become scarily plausible is, arguably, one of the most intriguing elements of this book.
If you’re not a fan of Sci-Fi or Artificial Intelligence, bear with me, I’m not a fan of that genre, either. But if we’ve learned anything from the past year, it’s how quickly our norms can change and how concepts that we never imagined can become our reality.
Klara and the Sun is a brilliant read. The writing is propulsive in a soothing and lyrical way; it’s almost like reading poetry or listening to music and that, in my view, is the crucial ingredient that hooks the non-Sci-Fi fan. Because much of the subject matter is unnerving and unsettling.
Narrated by Klara, who is a solar-powered Artificial Friend (AF)/Robot, the novel presents a mechanical but surprisingly warm, thoughtful and perceptive analysis of human behaviour, as Klara scans her surroundings with keen observational skill. We first meet Klara as she is moved from shop floor to shop window in the hard-ware store that caters for well-to-do, or ‘lifted’ families who wish to purchase a ‘companion’ for their friendship-deprived, home-schooled children (see, now I bet you’re thinking “that’s not a bad idea”!)
The book takes us on Klara’s journey with her humans as an AF to a young, bright girl who is suffering from a debilitating illness and, as Klara integrates herself into the life she was manufactured for, she tenderly identifies and observes the intricacies and anomalies of human behaviour and becomes profoundly aware of life’s inequities and the anxieties and pressures heaped on humans, by humans.
There is an abundance of mystery and suspense as we await enlightenment as to why, for example, the young girl is ill; why her sister died, previously, and what is the great privilege that separates the ‘lifted’ from the ‘unlifted’, in this less than perfect, uneasy world. A world of dazzling technological and scientific developments where genetic editing is a real option for the elite; where choices are made between children’s health and their educational betterment; where machines replace whole workforces; where isolation and loneliness are commonplace and where the gap between the haves and the have-nots is palpable. There is great irony in the fact that, in this world of constant, ruthless striving, humans appear to have become less human and, although Klara’s range of emotions is limited, those that she exhibits; her compassion, kindness and desire for people to be happy, make her more likeable than most of the humans in the story.
Whether it was meant to, or not, this novel resonates very powerfully in our current C-19 world. It’s hard not to draw comparisons with the remarkable modern scientific advancements that have seen, for example, the development of vaccines in record time and the very ugly concept of ‘vaccine nationalism’ that has emerged simultaneously.
The questions of how we should respond to unfairness in the world, or whether artificial intelligence can fully replace human intelligence, are not resolved in the book, but it makes for a very interesting, thought-provoking and constructive read, even for (or, perhaps, especially for?) the non-Sci-Fi fan.
It is an elegant assortment of themes; sweet, disturbing, light and dark. A study, too, of love, family and hope; but with ethical implications that linger long after you’ve said goodbye to Klara and the Sun.
(c) Angela Connaughton
Order your copy online here.