Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is my first Ishiguro novel, and I found it magical. I usually avoid all writing about a book, even down to back-cover blurbs, once I’m committed to reading it, but in this case I’m glad I took a look at the back cover, where it refers to protagonist Klara as an Artificial Friend; in the book itself Klara and others like her are AFs, and I think it’s well into the book before that acronym gets clarified. (I was just telling a student that I need all acronyms spelled out in his paper!) So, armed with this knowledge…

We first meet Klara when she is living in a store, mostly in contact with her friend Rosa (another AF) and a woman known as Manager. Klara is deeply curious and observative, well above average in these ways, and Manager tries to help her and Rosa to be chosen (and promote the store) by placing them in the window, which is also an advantage because AFs are apparently solar powered. Klara refers to the Sun as if he is a higher power, sentient, a god of sorts; ‘he’ is not capitalized but it almost feels as if it should be. The reader doesn’t get any background information, but gradually understands that Klara is for sale, to serve as an Artificial Friend to a child who chooses her. There are a few hiccups in her path, but Klara does eventually go home with a girl named Josie, who is mysteriously and intermittently ill, and who treats Klara rather better – rather more as a real person – than most AFs can expect to be treated by the families that choose them. This is somewhat earned by Klara’s unique powers of observation and understanding. She follows not only human actions but also emotions closely, searching for the connections and causations in relationships. She doesn’t always read cues correctly, but her interest is genuine and… I’m going to say her empathy is genuine and innate.

For me, this is the crux of the story. It seems that this is not true of most AFs (although Klara’s is the only mind we get inside of, as she is the novel’s first-person narrator), but Klara definitely feels. She is puzzled by human feelings and relationships, which she must consciously learn and study, but she already – naturally – feels something for them. Josie matters to her from the beginning. Josie’s mother (“the Mother”) likewise draws her empathy, although she is slower to treat Klara like a real person. I’m reminded of The Robot in the Garden, a very different book but one that also addresses questions of humanity via nonhuman characters. It’s a neat trick. Additionally, the outsider’s perspective (here, a person who’s not quite human) allows for direct observation of the human experience that a human character couldn’t make in a work of fiction without it feeling weird and forced.

Other details of Klara and Josie’s world that we slowly puzzle together: Josie is “lifted,” or (in some unexplained way) genetically modified for higher academic/intellectual performance, which is an advantage that most children apparently receive – or most in her social milieu? This comes with some disadvantages, too, though, including social ones. Josie’s lifelong friendship with a neighbor – which they would like to develop into something more – is hindered by his not having been lifted. There’s plenty to explore here metaphorically, too, not only about what constitutes advantage (and at what cost), but also about relationships across societal boundaries. I find many parallels with the story I’ve just finished teaching this week: “Who Will Greet You At Home,” by Leslie Nneka Arimah, which also literalizes some metaphorical real-world truths to illustrate them more clearly. I am a fan of this technique.

It’s a beautiful, thoughtful book, clearly written by a master. Evocative, with lovely descriptions. Klara’s voice (again, in first person) has a formality to it that nods toward her extra-humanness, but also highlights the observations she can make that a human cannot. Her appreciation of simple vistas is sublime. I am charmed by her Sun-worship. There is something about her – vision? or her appreciation of sunlight? I’m still not sure what it is – that sometimes divides her view into grids, which I found fascinating; I wish I understood better what was going on there, and wonder what else I’m missing here.

I love it. I’m not sure I entirely understand it, but I love it: the magical wonder of Klara’s unique voice, the precocious sweetness of Josie’s relationship with her mother, the curious rules of this world. Definitely interested in more of Ishiguro’s work.


Rating: 8 alcoves.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: