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Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro


What a wonderful book.

If you visit here from time to time, you may have heard me say that I don't like science fiction. It's quite true that as a genre it doesn't attract me at all - I read a lot of it in my twenties and was happy to have left it behind. But recently I've had to revise my thinking, as a result of two books that were chosen by my book group. The first was Ian McEwan's brilliant Machines Like Me, and the other a classic, Asimov's The Naked Sun. I enjoyed them both enormously. If you know these novels, you will realise that they both deal with the theme of humanoid robots. And so does Klara and the Sun, which I've just finished.

Klara, who narrates the novel, never refers to herself as a robot, and nor does anyone else apart from a rude woman encountered by chance. Klara is a solar-powered AF - an Artificial Friend - created to keep a child company. This has become necessary in the unspecified time in which the novel is set - not all that distant or different from our own. Children no longer attend school, but are taught remotely on their 'oblongs', as Klara calls them, so social interaction is very limited. An AF can help them learn to socialise before they go to university.

AFs are humanoid, but not to the extent of McEwan's or Asimov's, which are indistinguishable; here, people have no problem in recognising them. We don't have an exact description of Klara, but we gather that she's quite small - presumably the size of a typical young teenager - and has dark hair and eyes. As for the world she describes, she transmits it to us as she perceives it, and it's sometimes up to the reader to deduce the phenomenon she's reporting on. Her perceptual and cognitive abilities are superb, though the world she sees seems to be divided into boxes - normally these are aligned so she's not aware of them, but in situations of pressure or emotional strain, they get misaligned so that people or objects are split into sections and no longer in their correct places.

Emotional strain for an AF? Do AF's have feelings? Klara certainly thinks she does: 'I believe I have many feelings. The more I observe the more feelings become available to me.' Observation is Klara's strong point, stronger, according to the woman in charge of the store where she lives before she is bought, than any AF she has ever sold. One day, outside the window, she sees a man and woman meet in the street and fly into each others' arms. Manager, as Klara calls her, explains that they probably haven't seen each other for a long time, but Klara is puzzled - they should be happy but look as if they are upset. Manager explains, 'Sometimes at special moments like that, people feel a pain alongside their happiness'. Klara will add this to her repertoire of emotions and feelings.

Klara becomes the companion to a young girl called Josie. She is clever and kind, but she suffers from an un-named illness which sometimes confines her to bed for days or even weeks at a time. It appears that the illness can be fatal - it has already killed her sister - and there is no cure. As for the cause, the reader is left to work out that is must be connected with the fact that Josie and her sister, like most children from wealthy families, had been 'lifted'. Presumably this is a form of genetic engineering designed to enhance their abilities, but it clearly has potentially fatal drawbacks. Meanwhile, it has become a useful weapon for lifted children to taunt the unlifted. One such is Josie's best friend and next door neighbour Rick, a boy with high natural intelligence who will nevertheless find it almost impossible to get into a university, as his mother had not opted for lifting. Josie and Rick love each other, and have plans for some kind of future together. But Josie's mother ('The Mother' to Klara), only too aware that Josie may not have a future at all, is making plans which, it turns out, involve Klara.

Klara grows close to both Rick and Josie, and wants to find a way to help the young girl to get well. Her solution is simple. She will ask for help from the Sun. While in the store she had observed something that makes her believe this will work She saw a beggar and his dog lying immobile in a doorway for many hours, and assumed they had died: 'I felt sadness then', she says, 'despite it being a good thing that they’d died together, holding each other and trying to help one another'. But next morning, when the Sun's rays fall on them, they both get up, apparently miraculously brought back to life. Klara has watched the setting Sun out of Josie's bedroom window, and believes 'he' lives inside a distant farmer's barn. So, with the help of Rick, she makes a challenging expedition to the barn (challenging because she's not good at navigating uneven ground) to beg the Sun to heal Josie as he had healed the beggar and his dog. Without any outside help, Klara has invented her own religion, and rejoices every day to see 'the loveliness of the Sun’s nourishment falling over us'. 

This beautiful, engrossing novel raises so many questions. Klara's innocent, childlike view gives a fresh and often revealing perspective of the novel's world, one so worryingly close to our own. Above all, though, as many reviewers have noted, it questions what it means to be human. Klara is striving to be as human as possible, but a man she meets tells her that the human heart is so multi-layered that no AF could ever achieve its innermost workings. However, she displays more love, loyalty and faith than many of the humans in her life. They, on their side, seem fond of Klara and include her fully in their lives, but when we find out The Mother's plans for her, and discover what her eventual destination is, it's clear that, despite their affection for her, to them she is essentially just a machine. It's impossible not to love Klara, and though the ending is not unexpected, it's very sad.

Don't let this put you off, though. It's a magnificent novel. It's been described as Ishiguru's masterpiece, not something I can comment on as I took an unreasonable dislike to his writing many years ago, having failed to take to one of his novels (can't remember which). But now I'm anxious to make up the gap and have already started Never Let Me Go. Watch this space.





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