Kazuo Ishiguro is one of my favourite living authors and so as soon as I heard he had a new book coming out in 2021 I immediately pre-ordered Klara and the Sun. Last week, I had the chance to tune into a live, on-line discussion between Ishiguro and Souvankham Thammavongsa (recent Giller Prize winner and author of the short story collection How to Pronounce Knife).
I’ll start by saying that I began reading Klara and the Sun with the expectation of enjoying it and the novel fulfilled that expectation. I’ve seen very mixed reviews over Ishiguro’s latest offering (his first since being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature) but I thought it was very much in line with his previous work. There are obvious parallels to Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant (which I loved but know many readers did not). Here again, Ishiguro explores the idea of what it means to be human, what love looks like, and what the future of our world might look like.
Klara is our main character and narrator. She is an Artificial Friend, or AF, a sort of robot designed to keep a child company. We are introduced to Klara while she is still in the store, eagerly awaiting the moment when she is chosen by a human. Klara is inquisitive and observant. She loves to watch the world and to watch what the humans do outside the store window. Klara and the other AFs gain energy from the sun, constantly seeking out the sun’s power.
Eventually Klara is chosen by a young girl named Josie. Josie is smart and funny, lonely and unwell. She lives with her mother and her health seems to be in frequent flux, without anyone taking the time to explain to Klara just what is the matter with Josie. Josie is largely alone, learning from tutors on her “oblong” (something like a tablet), their house remote from others. Their only neighbour is Rick and his mother. Rick and Josie have been friends for years and are still extremely loyal to each other but something has recently changed between them, something that is linked to Josie’s illness. Klara, believing the sun to be the source of all health, formulates a plan to save Josie’s life.
There is a lot in this story that is never spoken out loud. As in Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro slowly unfolds a strange and different world, leaving it up to the reader to connect the clues and, in some places, to decide how the world works. Klara makes an excellent narrator for this because although she notices so much around her, she knows very little and her worldview is extremely limited. Even though she is extraordinarily attuned to Josie’s personality and needs, Klara can witness conversations between Josie and Rick and still never fully understand what they’re actually talking about.
Because we’re seeing the world through the eyes of a non-human character, there are also scenes where what Klara sees that don’t make sense to the reader. There are moments when Klara’s vision and comprehension seem to be altered, a sort of malfunction that was sometimes difficult to follow along with but was a good reminder that Klara interacts with the world in an entirely new way.
It was completely fascinating to sit in on the conversation between Thammavongsa and Ishiguro. And it really did feel more like a conversation than an interview as Ishiguro was as curious about her work and experience as she was about his. Ishiguro also touched on his past as a songwriter and how that has affected his development as a writer, compared with Thammavongsa’s experience as a poet and short story writer. They were both as charming and enjoyable as I could have hoped.