Review: Klara and the Sun
Henry Hood discusses Kazuo Ishiguro’s highly anticipated novel, Klara and the Sun.
Don’t judge a book by its cover. Despite being a well-known phrase and cliché, Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro proves the statement wrong. The basic cover design that sticks out in bookshop windows is strikingly similar to the novel’s frustratingly minimalistic world and plot, which some might say is Ishiguro’s trademark style.
I know I’m being harsh, but as someone who has read and loved other Ishiguro novels, Klara and the Sun is the literary equivalent of a glass of diluted orange squash. The premise of human emotions explored through AI is excellent, if not already a well-trodden path. The novel, however, fails to take on the piercing descriptions of human experience that many of his previous works contain.
In an interview with The Guardian, Ishiguro laughingly admitted that he tended to ‘rewrite the same novel over and over’. With this in mind, it’s difficult to appreciate Ishiguro’s latest novel without spotting how similar it is to his previous work. The exploration of emotions in the non-human and socially outcast echoes the children of Never Let Me Go. The strange withholding of information resembles the protagonist’s ambiguous trauma in Artist of the Floating World. Unfortunately, in Klara and the Sun, these themes aren’t tackled as skilfully as they were in his previous novels.
The novel fails to take on the piercing descriptions of the human experience that many of his previous works contain.
I found the novel’s opening setting – a world seen from a shop window – intriguing, but as I waited for the narrative to shift outside, I almost started to feel as trapped and claustrophobic as the robots themselves. Klara’s new house is a believable setting and the surrounding sun-baked fields are beautiful; the latter is, I think, one of the novel’s shining victories.
I do think, however, that the characters are the novel’s main flaw. Admittedly, many of the characters really stand out, like Josie’s strained relationship with her parents, or the long-lost lover Vance. The main problem for me, though, is Rick, whose dialogue reads less like that of a teenager and more like a character written by a GCSE student. Rick is the stereotypical young male hero: he’s predictably stoic and has the emotional depth of a paddling pool. Unintentionally, Rick becomes more of an inhuman robot than Klara herself, who at least grapples with what being ‘human’ means and the complexities of emotions.
The novel’s highlight, for me, is Klara’s delusions about the Sun. Her belief that the Sun is some omniscient God that grants her wishes seemed to ignite some distant childhood memory of mine. Klara grapples with divine intervention and the existence of a god in the same way we might do. It’s an experience that is difficult to put into words, and I think that Ishiguro particularly succeeds in painting such emotions when writing in these scenes.
But to return to my metaphor of weak orange squash, these are the nicer bits in an otherwise watery novel. The strange dystopian, ‘not-so-distant’, future is never explained; there are no huge revelations about the world, or carrot at the end of the stick to keep a reader going. The revelation that Klara would ‘become’ Rosie if she dies is an effective twist, but hardly an emotional bludgeon like the revelations of Never Let me Go. The ‘uncanny human world’ is a heavily trodden path, and as the Netflix series Black Mirror has already succeeded in this genre, the plot of Klara and the Sun no longer stands out.
Overall, I would give Klara and the Sun a rating of three out of five stars. If you haven’t read Ishiguro before, you will undoubtedly enjoy many of the characters and the flashes of human experience you wouldn’t usually think about. But for more avid readers of Ishiguro or dystopian sci-fi fans, this novel is, at its best, a nice summer read.