This will be considered a modern masterpiece. I wrote this sentence in my book journal while reading Klara and the Sun, the eighth-published novel from the mind and soul of Kazuo Ishiguro. Yet the word “masterpiece” is not one I take lightly, casually throwing it at whatever piece of fiction I happen to be reading at the time. In fact, I’m nearly certain that the last time I referred to a novel as a “modern masterpiece” was for Never Let Me Go, another work composed by Ishiguro. Perhaps my willingness to lavish this much praise on the merits of one author speaks more of his abilities as a writer than on mine as a reviewer. In the past, I’ve discussed the richness in My Experiences Reading Kazuo Ishiguro. Despite their similarities in terms of themes, a lot has changed in the sixteen years that separate Never Let Me Go and this latest offering. The world is a very different place with this current generation witnessing first-hand the fragility and the inevitability of death. Like a lone philosopher on a pilgrimage to better understand what makes us human, Ishiguro’s latest novel is a moving and profound exploration into the power of hope as well as what constitutes the human soul.
The story is set in the near future, at a time of fascist political movements and divided loyalties. Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it? However, Ishiguro doesn’t focus in-depth on the greater scheme of things, keeping his lens finely honed on his central characters. The narrator of this novel is Klara, an Artificial Friend (AF) designed to act as a companion to a lonely child who does not get out much in this brave new world. When we are first introduced to Klara, she is on display in a department store window. To refer to her as simply a robot does not do her justice because Klara, as her store manager says in a sales pitch, has an “appetite for observing and learning….[and] has the most sophisticated understanding of any AF in this store.” Despite her sharp observation skills, Klara also projects naivete in regards to this world. For example, Klara, who is solar-powered, believes the Sun to be this all-powerful deity who awakens in the morning, travels through the sky, and rests at night. This combination of keen observation and childlike insight make her the perfect flawed narrator among the long line of unreliable Ishiguro protagonists, such as Stevens the butler and Kathy H. It is Klara’s purpose to be adopted into a loving home where she can serve as a companion to a deserving child. One day, a pale and sickly-looking teen named Josie comes into the store with her mother, a woman who, Klara notices, carries an “angry exhaustion” in her eyes. Immediately forming a bond with Klara, Josie chooses her to be her best friend. Klara is packed up and sent to Josie’s home.
One of the delights of an Ishiguro novel is the gradual reveal as to the truth of the world he has created. As his audience, we learn the truth right alongside of our narrator. But it is a slow reveal. A struggle for me in writing this review is that I do not want to spoil the discovery for my readers who have not yet read this beautiful novel. Therefore, I shall tread lightly. Over time, we discover a rather painful truth about Josie, the result of a decision made by her mother some time ago. The plot builds to a reveal that is as easily disturbing as the truth of Kathy H. in Never Let Me Go. Just like that past novel, Ishiguro is asking us to consider the essence of the human soul. Rather, what constitutes our core essence?
While his first three novels concluding with The Remains of the Day were firmly grounded in realism, Ishiguro has since then played with various genres in order to explore his themes on humanity. The Unconsoled, his most experimental novel, is written as a series of jumbled dreams. The following three novels utilize detective fiction (When We Were Orphans), science fiction (Never Let Me Go), and fantasy (The Buried Giant). With Klara and the Sun, the author writes this story in the form of a children’s fable, complete with a hero willing to do everything in her power to save her friend. Klara’s voice, her sensibility-if you can say that of an artificial lifeform -is pure and devoted. The question of whether Klara, indeed, has a “soul” is a crucial one here, as it was in Never Let Me Go where the young female narrator is a clone. Klara is such a compelling presence that I think most readers of this novel would agree that she’s a sentient being. As the plot unfolds, it leads one character to ask:
Let me ask you this. Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t simply mean the organ, obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?
Klara certainly seems capable of loving. In fact, she risks her own life in order to appease the benevolent Sun for assistance. Whether more of these artificial lifeforms have this ability, or perhaps Klara is more special than what anyone realizes, we will never know. However, Klara’s “misguided” hope proves to be contagious to other characters in the novel. Josie’s friend Rick is more than willing to help Klara in her quest, even if he does not fully understand it. There’s a very powerful scene involving Klara and Josie’s father, where he helps her sabotage a pollution machine if it means saving Josie’s life. I believe Ishiguro was showing that “hope” is powerful enough when it comes to the ones we hold dear to our hearts.
While I believe Klara is capable of loving others, I also believe others are capable of loving her. When the character of Mr. Capaldi, the closest character to an antagonist, returns to the home to ask for permission to experiment on Klara, Josei’s mother vehemently refuses as she wants Klara to finish her life naturally. The ending of this novel is essentially bittersweet. None of the human characters fully grasp the sacrifices that Klara made on behalf of Josie. Perhaps this makes the ending to this novel rather heartbreaking. Without giving anything away, I found the final scene to be very sad despite our narrator viewing it differently. True to her name, which translates to “bright”, Klara shines beautifully on the connections that sustain us in an increasingly lonely world. Reading Klara and the Sun reminds us to cherish our time together, just as Klara gives praise to every moment she exists in the sun’s warmth.