Klara and the Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro – Audible Book Review
by Patrick Viale
To be in any way critical of a new novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, especially since his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017, is no doubt considered a hanging offence by many of his admirers. Bring on the rope! Heretofore I have always been an unqualified admirer of his work – “The Remains of the Day” is my favourite of all the winners of the Man Booker Prize and I have enjoyed both reading and listening to “Never Let Me Go”. While “Klara and the Sun” is set in an unsettling dystopian world like the latter, the book, narrated by a robot, by its very nature lacks the humanity and compassion of the earlier book and, while it engages the intellect, it rarely touches the emotions.
In our world mobile phones are the constant companions of all teenagers, in Ishiguro’s this role is taken on by intelligent robots known as AFs (Artificial Friends).
Set in an unidentified city in the US, from the opening sentence of the novel when we hear Klara listing the objects she sees, we are confused by the seemingly disjointed observations she makes of the scene around her. In true Ishiguro style nothing is explained and it is up to the reader to pick up the clues and envisage the world he is creating for us through what is said and what is omitted. We gradually become aware that Klara is an Artificial Friend and, like a puppy in a pet shop window, she is waiting for someone to choose her and take her home.
When a young girl, Josie, shows interest in her, Klara’s hopes are raised, however Josie’s mother, who seems to have an agenda different from her daughter’s, seems determined to choose a more modern model. It is only when Klara is able to show her full potential and carry out what seem unusual requests by the mother, that she is finally accepted and taken to her new home. Here she is introduced to new experiences, both good and bad. Her excitement at accompanying Josie outside, her first time in the open air, is dented by the casual prejudice of Josie’s friends and neighbours, one of whom enquires at a family gathering “Are you a guest at all? Or do I treat you like a vacuum cleaner?”
As she observes her new way of life the reader discovers along with her the rules that govern the world around her. We gradually become aware, too, that Josie is ill and that the choice of Klara as her AF may have more sinister motives. Like a flower opening petal by petal, Ishiguro gradually exposes a world that is at the same time similar and profoundly different from our own. This first section of the book is vintage Ishiguro – mysterious, engaging and stylistically brilliant.
It is when the sub-plot of Josie’s young friend, Rick, a British boy who lives nearby, is introduced that the story becomes more diffuse and starts to lose direction. The long saga of the efforts taken by Rick’s mother to get him accepted into a suitable educational establishment and her own background history seems imposed and not an organic part of the story, an impression reinforced by the narrator seeming to model her “British accent” on the Queen’s speech at Christmas. The quasi mystical role of the sun which is stressed at this point and Klara’s quest to fight pollution are confusing and the many different strands of narrative introduced in this middle section are so labyrinthine that they seem to impede rather than sustain the pace of the story.
In the last section Ishiguro is back in top form, focusing again on Klara, and the image we are left at the end is both powerful and touching. Like the curate’s egg, this book is excellent in spots and deserves to be read, if only for the arguments it will generate among its readers, for there will certainly be a myriad of different opinions about it. As the story is told by a robot, the narration is at times flat and unvarying for which one can’t blame its American narrator, Sura Siu although her grating British accent is hard to take seriously.
The audiobook is available from audible.co.uk and lasts 10hrs 16mins.