In 2015 Nobel Prize winning author Kazuo Ishiguro admitted in an interview with the Guardian that “I tend to write the same book over and over, or at least, I take the same subject I took last time out and refine it, or do a slightly different take on it.” I must admit that this is the way that I felt about his most recent book Klara and the Sun which seemed to be almost a companion novel to his 2005 Never Let Me Go.
Klara, the eponymous narrator of this novel is an AF – ‘artificial friend’ – a type of intelligent mannequin marketed at parents and children who want a trusted, safe ‘friend’ for the child. From her storefront window, basking in the warmth of the sun which replenishes her solar cells, Klara is observant as she watches the passing pedestrians and traffic while affecting a mannequin-like blankness. She is purchased for Josie, a young girl suffering from some unspecified illness. Josie has been ‘elevated’, a form of genetic engineering for intelligence, but now her mother is desperate that Josie, like her older sister Sal, is going to die. When she acquiesces to Josie’s urging to purchase Klara, we do not know why, although it becomes clearer as the book goes on.
As with Never Let Me Go, the narration is flat and just somewhat off-kilter. Klara can move, but her perception and observation is very much limited to what is immediately in front of her. She has no sense of smell, and her vision at times is broken into small screen-like boxes. We have no idea what she looks like, or what anyone else looks like for that matter. For some reason, I had assumed that it was set in England but it was only when ‘being English’ was seen as a distinguishing trait, that I began wondering where it really was set. Things are described with the eyes of the outsider: people look at their ‘oblongs’ (phones?) and just as Klara needs to piece together stimuli to make sense, so we too gradually understand what being ‘elevated’ involves, and Klara mother’s intentions for Klara and Josie.
I felt that the book was a bit heavy-handed in its treatment of ‘sacrifice’, a deity and miracles, which are superimposed over the limited worldview of Klara. Just the scenario of a deliberately constrained consciousness, and a body so utilitarian in its construction, is bleak and though-provoking in its own right. I found myself fearing for Klara, an emotion that she did not hold for herself. Like Cathy in Never Let Me Go, the real strength of this narrative voice is its emptiness, punctured by savage shards of awareness.
I think that my enjoyment of this book was heightened by having read Never Let Me Go, which as Ishiguro himself admitted, has a similar theme, with a slightly different take. They make two companion stories. In Never Let Me Go (which I think is the better book) we have the creation of the physical body for a purpose; here we have a consciousness awakened (but not allowed to develop) with the body itself immaterial. Other people have dealt with similar themes of course – I’m thinking here of the television series Humans – but being taken into the limited worldview of Karla, and Cathy from Never Let Me Go, gives both these novels added and memorable poignancy.
My rating: 9
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
Read because: It’s on the Booker Prize Long List