Kazuo Ishiguro is the king, is he not, of narrators who are discovering their worlds much as readers do, piecing together reality based upon the information available to them. It’s true of Etsuko in A Pale View of the Hills (described by the New York Review of Books as “a ghost story but the narrator does not realise that”). It’s true of Masuji Ono in An Artist of the Floating World who has to rediscover and invent his own morals. It’s true of Stevens in The Remains of the Day, paralysed by the traditions handed down to him, caught up in the end days of a particular kind of society as the world changes, unfathomably at times, around him. It’s true of Ryder, the apparently famous pianist caught up in the dream-like world of The Unconsoled. It’s true of Christopher Banks, the detective at the heart of When We Were Orphans. It’s true of Ruth, Tommy and Kathy, the clones in Never Let Me Go (the novel most similar to his latest, Klara and the Sun). It’s even true of Axl and Beatrice, traversing the strangely dream-like Arthurian landscape of The Buried Giant (a novel that has a lot more in common with The Unconsoled than has been credited). And, hey, it’s true of Klara and the Sun, the story of an Artificial Friend (or AF) who is purchased by a sickly girl called Josie.
Like The Buried Giant, it never quite says when Klara and the Sun is set (it’s sort of America, we gather, intuitively) although the presence of AI (amongst other things) hints at a future (although, like Remains of the Day, Klara and the Sun has a curiously retro feel in its world building, as if all of this is taking place some time in the 50s or 60s, in the world of Mad Men, say,, lending a gentle steampunkiness to proceedings). The action opens in a shop on a not-quite bustling street (our eponymous narrator who is often praised for her acuity notices that other Adult Friends don’t quite like to take this street or cross over to the other side of the road if forced to travel this way, not wanting their owners to spy more up to date models perhaps, afraid of their own obsolescence). Klara and her AF best bud Rosa (who is not quite as artificially aware as Klara herself) are popped in the old shop window to try and attract custom and it is here she first meets Josie, a youngish child who doesn’t seem to walk quite like everyone else.
Purchased, Klara is taken away from the hustle and bustle of the city to a house in the country, where the view from the window is nothing like the view she’s had previously. Now all of the people have been replaced by a small cast – Josie, the Mother, Melania Housekeeper and Rick, a possible boyfriend who lives with his slightly fragile mother Helen in the next (albeit much smaller) house along. Josie talks of her plans with Rick (we view these as children daydreaming of one day being mummy and daddy), but we overhear chats between the grown-ups about how Rick is not ‘lifted’, which we take to mean enhanced in some way, the enhancement of children seemingly every day here (even though it does seem to come to with occasionally fatal side effects). Klara gets to inhabit Josie’s space and sees she has good days and bad days and so, with a little bit of help from Rick, she makes a journey across the nearby field to a barn where the sun seems to go to its rest each day – and it is there that Klara makes a sort of deal, a gradually mutating sacrifice to help Josie live a full life.
But Josie’s deal runs in tandem with a plan hatched by the Mother, that involves visiting the city in order to have Josie’s ‘portrait’ done, a plan that Josie’s father seems to take issue with – and it is in amongst the so-called portrait painting, the arguments between Mother and Father, and separate plans hatched by Rick’s mother Helen to advance her son’s prospects despite the fact he hasn’t been enhanced, that Josie spies a way to bring her own plan to fruition – and from Klara’s perspective, which is also our perspective, we eventually seem to bear witness to a kind of resolution (albeit a resolution that does not entirely benefit Klara herself).
Obviously drawing down on the kinds of ideas swirling in the air (the kinds of ideas covered so exquisitely by Mark O’Connell in To Be a Machine), ideas that have been taken up by the likes of Ian McEwan (Machines Like Me) and Jeanette Winterson (in Frankissstein), neither of which Ishiguro read whilst he was writing Klara and the Sun. This is, as you’d expect, a work of consummate artistry. Each sentence contributes to the whole. It’s well-paced, mannered (as you’d expect) and similar and satisfyin in the way that Ishiguro’s best novels are (he has spoken in interviews around Klara and the Sun about how he refines and refines an idea, such that you can glimpse the truth he seeks to get to across the sum of his books, a truth that is coming to seem almost Beckettian – we can’t know, we can’t be known). We came away with the sense that Klara and the Sun is a grower not a shower, a book we feel a great warmth for, and a story that we can imagine coming back to in the years ahead to see how it changes as we ourselves change.
Any Cop?: Ishiguro certainly doesn’t disappoint in the first novel he’s completed since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature and we can well imagine this both sweeping the awards boards for 2021 and appearing in a great many end of year favourite lists.