Klara and The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro: A Book Review

Klara and The Sun is Kazuo Ishiguro’s eighth novel and the first after his Nobel Prize in 2017. This latest title is very different from his previous works. Here is a futuristic story in the style of a children’s fable. The language used is simple and descriptions explicit, written from the point of view of Klara, a humanoid robot. Ishiguro has dealt with sci-fi matter before in Never Let Me Go (2005) relating to human cloning, exploring the complexity of love and jealousy. Compared to Never Let Me Go, Klara and The Sun is a much lighter read.

Klara is an AF, Artificial Friend, to fourteen-year-old Josie. They meet in a store where AF’s are sold. Klara is displayed at the storefront when Josie comes in; their fondness of each other sparks off at first sight. Every AF is uniquely created, and here’s Klara’s selling points as Manager explains to Josie’s Mother:

‘Klara has so many unique qualities, we could be here all morning. But if I had to emphasize just one, well, it would have to be her appetite for observing and learning. Her ability to absorb and blend everything she sees around her is quite amazing. As a result, she now has the most sophisticated understanding of any AF in this store, B3s not excepted.’ (P. 43)

B3s are the newest and most advanced model of AF, but Josie insisted on having Klara. Mother gives in to her urging and Klara follows them home. Home is in a remote, rural area. The residence is big and offers views into a vast natural area. In this house the story of Klara and Josie begins.

Josie is a sickly teenager, walks with a limp and often bedridden. Klara is a faithful companion to her, follows her biddings to the dot. There are only two other characters in the house, Josie’s Mother and Melania Housekeeper, both are highly protective of Josie. Josie has a childhood friend, Rick, who lives nearby. Father resides in the city, the details are vague in terms of the reasons of the separation, but we know he cares for Josie very much but holds a different view from Josie’s Mother regarding how they should deal with Josie’s worsening health.

And then there’s Klara’s view of what she sees as a solution to Josie’s illness. Klara runs on energy from The Sun, a benevolent being watching over all. She will appeal to her source of life. As the story develops, we see how Klara’s empathy and love for Josie would put humans to shame. Ishiguro paints another picture of the artificial intelligence (AI) alarm which Sherry Turkle has set off when she writes about technology replacing human in Alone Together, or in the film Ex Machina where a humanoid robot eerily eliminating her creator. Ishiguro lets Klara’s story present the scenario where AI would surpass human in heart, thus implicitly posing the question: “What makes humans human after all?”

However, as the writing follows a straight forward, fable-like style of storytelling, questions such as this are not dealt with in any depth, albeit I feel they could have been explored further. For this reason, unlike Never Let Me Go, I find it hard to engage emotionally with the characters. As the story goes, I keep expecting that there would be some twists and turns in the plot or more complex handling of the thematic matter but which never come.

In a recent online conversation with Toronto International Film Festival’s Artistic Director Cameron Bailey, Ishiguro says he does not go into details about the science and technology mentioned in the book, all for the purpose of allowing readers’ imagination to fill in the blanks. Technical details are prone to be outdated easily. He prefers readers to involve in the world building of the story rather than being passive recipients. My response to this point is that, not just with the technical details, he has left the novel quite open for readers to exercise their imagination.

A movie adaptation is already in development. Again, adhering to his personal rule, Ishiguro will not be writing the screenplay and he will give ample freedom to the filmmaker to create their own movie with the name Klara and The Sun, as long as they take passionate ownership of their story.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Related Posts:

Never Let Me Go: From Book to Film

Ex Machina Movie Review

Alone Together by Sherry Turkle

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

24 thoughts on “Klara and The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro: A Book Review”

  1. I heard this on the radio and like you all the way through I was waiting for a twist similar to Never Let Me Go – where the depth of the characters’ attachments and hopes and fears contrasted with the future they would never be able to have. I found the separations at the end of that desolate and devastating. It was a problem for me that this book was similar in theme but less moving. Still interesting and enjoyable though, Ishiguro is always interesting.

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    1. You know, Ishiguro talks about the movie adaptation. As with his personal rule (yes he actually used that word), he doesn’t write the screenplay of his own books. And his filmmaking philosophy is, since film is a totally different art form, the two will never be exactly the same. His only requirement is that the filmmaker will take ownership of the story, and do something that they are passionate about. This is the advice he gave Alex Garland when he adapted Never Let Me Go. So, with that cue in mind, I hope the movie will be more intriguing and more gratifying than the book. 🙂

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  2. The name ‘Klara’ brought to mind the ‘Clara’ who was Heidi’s friend in that famous book. Illness was integral to that plot, too, and I couldn’t help seeing some parallels between the two stories. In this book, of course, it’s Josie who’s sickly and Klara who seeks to help her, but the outlines of the story told in Heidi seems to resonate here.

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    1. Wonderful insight, Linda, as usual! I’m so glad you brought that to my attention, between the two Klara/Clara’s and their illnesses. (Sadly, though, Ishiguro does not bring in the faith and hope that Spyri does.)

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    2. Interesting association, Linda. And, I can think of another one, albeit not as close in the names as you’ve suggested, and that’s The Secret Garden. In the online conversation with TIFF’s Cameron Bailey, Ishiguro mentioned that a children’s picture book gave him the idea, I forgot if it’s a Japanese book or not. And he purposely create the book in the vein of a children’s fable.

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  3. I appreciate your thoughts on this novel so much, as they mirror my own but add so much more. It makes sense that Ishiguro does not want to be too detailed on the technological aspects, and I feel it is a Japanese “style” to let the reader draw their own conclusions. Still, I felt emptier than I wanted to after finishing the novel.

    As for a Dostoevsky read along of The Brothers Karamazov: lovely! Madeleine L’Engle once said it was her favorite book, and I have read it before. But, it would be so nice to read it again with you and any others who would join in. I could begin in May, as I soon will finish my “duty” for the International Booker Prize Shadow Jury.

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    1. That’s wonderful, Bellezza! This is my first time reading this book, albeit I’ve read Crime and Punishment and The Idiot. May is just fine for me to start. And so glad Madeleine L’Engle had mentioned that! I’ll write up a post on it in the next week or so. Will be interesting to see what your feelings are second time around. 🙂

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  4. I seem to be alone here: I found the ‘twist in the tale’ shocking and horrifying, and I had to put the book down for a moment or two to gather myself together again. I didn’t talk about it in my review so as not to include *the* significant spoiler, but I was horrified by it because to me it meant that the human grasp on reality had been lost if what had been planned all along (and that I had failed to see coming) came to pass. Who are we, if we can’t tell the difference?
    (See https://anzlitlovers.com/2021/03/31/klara-and-the-sun-by-kazuo-ishiguro-winner-of-the-nobel-prize-in-2017/)

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    1. Possible *Spoiler in the following comment:

      Hi Lisa,

      First of all, thanks so much for stopping by the Pond and throwing in your two pebbles. I appreciate your leaving a link to your review, which I find is very detailed and cautious of not spoiling the story. Interesting that you said you were ‘horrified’ by the ‘twist’, I assume you mean what’s revealed in the portrait studio when they go to the city? If that’s what you mean, I can appreciate your being horrified by it. In a way, Ishiguro has dropped a hint at the very beginning by having Mother ask Klara in the store to imitate Josie walking. So I gather from the start that she might have something in mind relating to that… albeit I understand, the graphic description of the studio is eery, you’re right.

      Anyway, I’ve appreciated these exchanges of views. As we’re thousands of miles apart, thanks to the Internet, we can share our responses in the blogosphere… O, BTW, I’m thinking of hosting a read-along of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, would you be interested? I’ll post more details in the days ahead.

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  5. Yes, that was what I meant by the twist… and there was, of course, that hint, but I didn’t join those dots until The Big Reveal!
    As it happens, I’m now reading Growing Up Disabled in Australia so the issue of ‘human perfection’ for want of a better expression is very much in my mind. I’m also thinking about what makes a life worthwhile to the one that’s living it and how parents in wanting to do ‘what’s best’ for their child have awesomely difficult decisions to make (and, like the rest of us parents) will in time be taken to task for their failures and mistakes. (I thought Kazuo did the mother/daughter spats very well. )
    I like to (re?)read The Brothers Karamazov but I am a bit snowed under with other commitments at the moment, not the least of which is a nine-week course on Yiddish women in translation. I don’t yet know how much reading there will be for that… it’s unlikely to be whole books, but I might find myself wanting to read the whole book if they give us excerpts. So with TBK, a lot would depend on when it was going to be…

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    1. I’m thinking of starting in May and no set date for a finish but maybe the middle or end of July. As I’m a slow reader, probably it will take me three weeks to finish one section comfortably and there are four sections plus epilogue. Bellezza (comment above) has already joined in to reread. I’ll have a post up in a few days.

      BTW, a course on Yiddish women in translation sounds so interesting. Have fun! 😀

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    2. Yes, Ishiguro has some realistic description about mother/daughter relationship especially when Josie wants her way and there’s often a bit of a tug of war, typical mother / daughter relationship. However, re. Mother’s intention as revealed in the studio, I feel that her love isn’t so much for Josie but more for herself, the purpose for the studio ‘experiment’ is more to seek her own consolation. In contrast, Klara’s love for Josie is purely sacrificial. That’s what I meant when I wrote her empathy and love could put humans to shame.

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      1. mmm, yes, but…
        When we say, ‘I can’t bear to live without you, that is because we are thinking about our own feelings, but it doesn’t lessen the love we feel for whoever it is. That is what Klara’s mother is expressing, albeit in a way that is immature, because we all have to live without the ones we love at some stage, even if our parents, for example, live a very long time. But immature love is still love.
        I think that Ishiguro’s cunning lies in making us believe in Klara and her ‘capacity for love’. She has been programmed to do that.

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        1. That’s an excellent point! Thanks for reminding me: Klara loves because she is programmed to do so. She has no choice but to love. While humans have free will. One loves because one chooses to love, making it more precious. This leads me to think of A Clockwork Orange. If you’re regenerated not to be violent, then your peaceful demeanour is just a programmed behaviour. You’ve pointed out Ishiguro’s ‘cunningness’ in leading us to see Klara as a humanlike character with free will. Excellent point!
          On the other hand, is this an idea that the author has intended though, because he has not even mentioned this point: free will. Or, have you outsmarted him? 😀

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  6. I have held off reading your thoughts on the book until I finished it, which I did last night! I very much enjoyed the book and it did not at all end like I expected it to. I thought Klara’s request of the Sun would not end well. Like Lisa I was horrified regarding the portrait. It was wrong in so many ways. I wonder if that might be one reason the father lived in the city? Well that and it seems like he got replaced in his job and so no longer had status? I wanted to know so much more about this world, which felt ominous in the background. Klara’s innocence and belief was so heartwarming and sad and the way her life came to end was terrible. She deserved better, but had no bad feelings about anything, so satisfied that she did everything to the best of her abilities. It’s a quiet book all about love in all its many forms. Enjoyed reading your thoughts on it!

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    1. Stefanie,

      Looks like you’ve thoroughly enjoyed the book and are saddened by the ending. I think that’s what Lisa meant by Ishiguro’s ‘cunningness’ in leading us to believe in Klara and her ‘capacity for love’, as you point out, “Klara’s innocence and belief was so heartwarming… had no bad feelings about anything, so satisfied that she did everything to the best of her abilities.” The flip side is noted by Lisa: Klara has been programmed to do that. I too had thought of her as a sympathetic character with an altruistic love for Josie. That’s the basis of how I wrote the review. But if she’s programmed to do that (I only thought of that after reading Lisa’s comment) i.e., programmed to love, that certainly has diminished the value of her love, as it’s no longer volitional like humans acting out of free will. This I think is a ‘problem point’ with the story. However, I don’t think Ishiguro meant to drop this into the debate: free will vs. programmed. Because… in the whole hour of Conversation which I watched online (paid ticket too), he had never mentioned this point. But he did say, he left many blanks for readers to fill in, so, interpret however they like and take away whatever they find meaningful. That too, could be Ishiguro’s ‘cunningness.’

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh I had not thought of Klara being programmed to love. She was programmed to care, but not required to love. If she didn’t have real feelings for Josie, then she would have allowed the other family to buy her because she would not have cared who she was with. Plus, over and over we are told how special Klara is and since she expressed other feelings too, I’m ok with allowing her to freely love 🙂

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