‘The Sun always has ways to reach us.’
From her place in the store, Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, watches carefully the behaviour of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass in the street outside. She remains hopeful a customer will soon choose her, but when the possibility emerges that her circumstances may change for ever, Klara is warned not to invest too much in the promises of humans.
This was a novel I pounced on, snapping it up on publication day… and then sat on until I had time to do it justice. And it is also a novel that, having finished I hesitated before trying to review.
There is no doubt that this is a very powerful novel, exploring issues which are prescient and perhaps increasingly pressing: what is it to be human, to be conscious, to be aware… what is identity? And perhaps it was the weightiness of that subject matter that felt a little -cumbersome.
And also, this novel bore so many close parallels to Never Let Me Go – which for me is an almost perfect novel – that the ghost of Kathy H felt far too close. Klara, our narrator, is like Kathy an outsider, a constructed identity, and surely there is little distinction between a clone and an AI save that one is organic and the other mechanical. In both Never Let Me Go and Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro creates a dystopian world allowing the horrors of that different world to seep slowly into the consciousness of the reader – he really is a master of self-control. Both Kathy and Klara are innocents in a world that devalues them, and both challenge the reader to see them as more than the sum of their artificiality.
Kathy however was able to offer a knowing adult’s point of view on her childhood whereas Klara did not seem to move from her childish state. She persists as an innocent, credulous at times, passive at others, stunned with awe and wonderment on occasion.
In terms of plot, Klara is an Artificial Friend, an AI in a humanoid body designed to provide companionship and friendship to a child. Whilst not uncommon, such a Friend would obviously be expensive and a symbol of status, privilege and wealth, and eventually a little girl named Josie persuades her mother to buy Klara. We discover that Josie is not well, and Klara determines to seek a cure from the Sun – not unreasonable for a solar powered AI dependent on the sun for energy – at the same time as Josie’s mother seems resigned to the inevitable and seeks to preemptively ameliorate her grief, in a manner which was terrible but which I won’t spoil.
Klara’s efforts to commune with the sun – or the Sun – seem to us cynical readers somewhat pathetic. She mistakes the barn across the field from Josie’s home, behind which the sun sets, as the Sun’s home and she travels there to pray, abase herself and negotiate with the Sun. Easy enough to dismiss as childish ignorance – if Ishiguro’s language in these sections was not so gorgeous.
There were some curious features about my surroundings. On first entering the barn, I’d encountered such sharply contrasting divisions of brightness and shadow that my sight had taken a few moments to adjust….
As these words moved through my mind, something distinctly changed around me. The red glow inside the barn was still dense, but now had an almost gentle aspect – so much so that the various segments into which my surroundings were still partitioned appeared to be drifting amidst the Sun’s last rays….
The inside of the barn was getting darker, but it was a friendly darkness, and soon the segments had gone, leaving the interior no longer partitioned. I knew the Sun had moved on, and rising from the foldaway chair, I walked for the first time over to the back opening of Mr McBain’s barn. I saw then how the field continued into the mid-distance until it met a line of trees – a kind of soft fence – and behind it, the Sun, tired and no longer intense, was sinking into the ground. The sky was turning into night, with stars visible, and I could tell that the Sun was smiling towards me kindly as he went down for his rest.
A plan comes to Klara, to try to combat Pollution in exchange for the sun’s aid, which reminded me a little of Greta Thunberg – and which required a not insignificant personal sacrifice from her. Whether the plans – Klara’s or Josie’s mother’s – come to fruition, I shall leave for you to discover!
But the denouement is so powerfully and beautifully executed, so wonderfully and convincingly portrayed that I challenge any reader not to be won over by Klara’s innocent faith.
Behind this, the world into which Klara is created, is one of the most troublingly dystopian I have come across. Josie’s need for Klara comes from living in a world in which children are painfully isolated: the home schooling and screen tutors and professors felt oh so familiar to those of us with children or in education and relying on Teams and Zoom for learning! It is a world in which some children can be ‘Lifted’, genetically manipulated to be superior, leaving those who are unlifted like Josie’s neighbour and best friend Rick isolated and excluded. And some parts of society, represented by Josie’s estranged father, had rejected and (perhaps literally) taken up arms against these divisions.
I would be throwing superlatives around at this novel – masterpiece, sublime, luminous – if the memory of Never Let Me Go were not quite so fresh and the parallels not so loud. Which is a shame because this is an exceptionally powerful and beautiful novel. What it has prompted me to do is dig out my copy of The Buried Giant which left me heavily underwhelmed, to see whether I missed anything there,
What I Liked
- Ishiguro’s luminous prose which was wonderful enough to make me believe in miracles.
- Klara’s simple, pure innocence and faith. In almost all of his work, Ishiguro seems to champion the dignity of the simple quiet life lived well, as not many do.
- The lack of authorial dogma: the issues of faith and scepticism, belief and scientism within the novel are huge issues, and Ishiguro manages to present both sides without denigrating the other.
- The world building that were both horrific and terribly uncomfortable credible, yet presented with real subtlety.
What Could Have Been Different
- The novel could have been a little more distinct than Never Let Me Go to avoid the inevitable – and unfortunate – comparisons.
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