When we were new, Rosa and I were mid-store, on the magazines table side, and could see through more than half of the window.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, Klara and the Sun, offers up its first delight before we even open the book. A subtle detail in the cover design is a nod to all readers like myself who love the tactile experience of reading a book. We see what appears to be a window frame, through which the sun is starting to show from the top right corner, and the window frame is ever so slightly indented on the page; this detail immediately enhances the sense of a threshold leading us directly towards a core element of the book.
The novel follows the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend in a world where most human children are paired with AFs as a part of their journey through adolescence. When we meet Klara, she is in a store for these AFs; they wait here, being given turns to be placed front and centre in the store window, until their future human companion chooses them and takes them home. The importance and power of the sun is emphasised from the beginning; the AFs are replenished by the sun, so yearn to be within its reach. Their reverence for it is almost sacred and, as the story progresses, the sun becomes a kind of character in itself.
Klara is portrayed as more curious, more observant, and different to the rest.
Unlike most AFs, unlike Rosa, I’d always longed to see more of the outside – and to see it in all its detail.
She becomes interested in observing human emotions; whereas Rosa, the AF that she is usually placed with, doesn’t seem to register these at all.
Klara’s time finally comes when a girl Josie, and her mother, come to take Klara home with them. In contrast to Klara’s softness, sweetness and innocence, Josie is portrayed as a chatty, feisty, determined young girl. Josie’s mother is an important figure in the story too, from whom Klara learns much, through observation and conversation.
“The more I observe, the more feelings become available to me.”
Rick, Josie’s neighbour and best friend, is another key character. As we watch their friendship unfold, we see how Josie is possibly struggling with the life laid out for her. Rick, on the other hand, is steadfast in his rejection of current social norms; he embodies a resolute link to an older, more traditional way of life.
Klara has been presented from the offset as exceptional, and this only increases as the story progresses. The devotion she commits to her role might be seen as beyond what we would expect of an android; perhaps some of Josie’s original determination has rubbed off on her after all? Although how are we to ever know what exactly androids could grow to experience? In a way, this novel is all about perspectives.
A key focus of Klara’s observation is the relationships between the people in her world; watching how they react to each other, to certain situations, even noticing subtle facial reactions and body language. What unfolds is a beautiful story exploring the growing pains of adolescence, family dynamics, and the many faces of love. Through her eyes we see the different forms of love and affection that can materialise within relationships, the way parents’ hopes and dreams for their children can impact the decisions they make.
…what was becoming clear to me was the extent to which humans, in their wish to escape loneliness, made maneuvers that were very complex and hard to fathom…
References to loneliness surface in various different contexts, inviting us to consider how loneliness can mean different things to different people.
The world in which the story takes place is in a highly advanced state of technology, with an equally high dependence on it. While the novel is peppered with hints at a sinister undercurrent to the world, Ishiguro doesn’t disclose everything, leaving us to piece certain things together for ourselves; often the unknown is more terrifying than the fully disclosed.
While we occasionally forget we are seeing all this through the eyes of an android, certain aspects of the language remind us throughout. The Mother and the Sun, amongst other characters or elements of the story, are referred to with a capital letter, giving them an almost symbolic status, like playing pieces on a stage in Klara’s structured view of the world. This is further emphasised by her need to navigate through the world by familiar landmarks, her disorientation when they are moved or missing. She describes how she sees things in boxes (presumably some kind of grid-like artificial vision), and also speaks about estimating things like people’s ages or their moods.
Yet despite any level of observational skills, intelligence, or ability to learn from all she sees around her, her understanding can never be human. The complexities of the human mind, and heart, are difficult enough for the most advanced scientists and psychologists to grasp. Through this story Ishiguro touches on the controversial debate about whether or not even the most advanced of technology will ever be able to replicate, or connect with, the depths of human consciousness and emotion.
“The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?”
Reading a novel like this can remind us to be wary of a dependence on technology, and giving ourselves up to it. It can also remind us to celebrate what lies at the root of human connection and fulfillment in life.
This novel is a bittersweet read; in a bleak world where the possibilities of science and technology have been pushed too far, we grow to love Klara for how earnestly she approaches her role; through her eyes, we are spurred to explore our own understandings of loyalty, love and authenticity.
Klara and the Sun is available in Ireland from most bookshops, so be sure to support your local bookshop