In Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro revisits familiar ground. He returns to questions asked in his earlier novel, Never Let Me Go, and delves deeper into considerations of belonging and loneliness in modern societies. Through the lens of speculative fiction and the account of Klara, an Artificial Friend (or AF for short), he picks apart the human consequences of our ever more automated reality and once again asks what it really means to be human.
Ishiguro has never been scared of confessing his repetition. He has often said in interview that going back to a story and altering characters or setting can completely reframe the ideas expressed and that in doing so, he hopes he is always stepping closer to conveying his intended message. In many ways, Klara and the Sun does just this.
Where Never Let Me Go focuses on a broken system as a whole, Klara and the Sun is a more intimate novel for most of its span. Klara’s world is much smaller than the average person’s because she only knows and trusts the limited amount that she has seen first-hand. By shrinking the scope, it somehow felt that Ishiguro was really able to consider the isolation of modern living. He focuses on Klara and Josie, the child who picks her, asking what role Klara is to play in this child’s life. At first, it seems an innocent principle that AFs should exist but, soon, it begins to feel that they are there to fill a void rather than supplement human interaction.
Klara’s story begins as she stands in ‘the store’ each day, patiently hoping to be chosen and bought by a family despite the fact that the newer model of AFs have just arrived. The rest of the time, she observes and waits for her turn back up at the front of the store, near the wide, street-facing window, in the Sun’s glare and in view of passers-by.
Each AF is said to be unique and Klara is always described as particularly inquisitive and aware of the world around her. It’s this attention and fascination with the minor details in life that first endear her to the human characters of the story and which, to a reader, make her seem the picture of innocence. In Klara’s eyes, her purpose is clear. She lives to eradicate loneliness from a young child’s life and fails to understand anyone who would willingly choose to be alone.
The fact that there is even the suggestion of needing Artificial Friends in this advanced society is rather terrifying, especially in a world struggling towards the end of a pandemic where loneliness has become all the more threatening for its prevalence. The world the reader is introduced to is by no means a dystopia but it’s saddening to see how human connections have become stretched and more and more of life has been segregated or made virtual.
Similar in style to Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro writes Klara and the Sun from Klara’s perspective and the story can often be confusing when terms are thrown around as though they are commonplace. That we can’t quite understand the details emphasises the differences of this society to our own but never at the expense of the plot. Yes, Ishiguro’s stories may require some perseverance and an ability to accept the mystery of a new world but these never make his books a chore to read. Often, this uncertainty adds to the atmosphere and the concern you may feel towards his characters.
Once again, characters are where Ishiguro’s skill as an author is most evident. Starting in the store, the reader is immediately allowed an insight into Klara’s questioning mind but her relationships with the manager and other AFs also begin to reveal her human qualities. It can be heart-warming to see the care displayed between Klara and Manager but, more so, seeing the way rumours and ideas spread between the AFs like between children in a school playground puts the mentality of these creations into perspective.
Many characters, like Manager in the store and later The Mother of Josie, are referred to in Klara’s mind only by their titles. It feels as though this should make it a very impersonal book but, to Klara, this is no obstacle, it is simply the way she operates. Perhaps on the humans’ behalf they haven’t gone out of their way to make sure Klara can see their care for her but, from Klara’s point of view, her affection the other way is never in doubt.
The Sun also becomes quite a major character in the story, as strange as that may sound. Klara, and you have to decide for yourself whether the same applies to AFs in general, places an important role on the Sun. AFs are, at least in part, solar powered and therefore they naturally long to be in the Sun’s glare but, soon, it becomes almost a religious devotion that Klara feels towards the Sun and its ability to heal.
Josie is ill and Klara often implores the Sun to heal her. I love that, to a reader, this may seem a kind sentiment but also scientifically illogical but that Klara never questions her beliefs. This is one of the things that makes her seem the most human: she too is willing to abandon pure logic and to act on what she believes in rather than what her calculating mind tells her is correct.
On top of that, Klara is not infallible. Among a group of Josie’s friends who meet to practice their social interactions, Klara freezes under their commands. She doesn’t know who to listen to and, in these moments where there is too much for her to process, her view of the world is described as sectioned off into boxes. This can be a bit confusing to read but I always took it to be her way of breaking down the scene ahead of her into manageable chunks.
Without giving too much away, the plot of Klara and the Sun is just as desperate and full of hope as Never Let Me Go but, for me, one of the main differences was the way it approached its conclusion. It seemed to continually build and grow more complex until the whole story just ended. Somehow, this was not a disappointing conclusion though. It seemed fitting for an AF who is so certain of their purpose to live and work until that purpose is fulfilled and then halt. The only other thing I will say on the plot is that the final scene is the simplest in the book but also the most emotional that Ishiguro includes.
Klara and the Sun is by no means a perfect copy of Never Let Me Go but, if you liked one, there’s a good chance you would enjoy the other. In their considerations of modern life they are some of the most thought-provoking warnings of uncontrolled advancements. At its core though, Klara and the Sun remains what all good novels should be: a fantastic story that will touch your life while you read it and for a long time after. It will make you think about your own actions even if Klara is different in so many ways and, by the end, you will surely be questioning whether she can be defined as just an AF and whether she was ever that different from us after all.
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