This month’s book is “Klara and the Sun” by Nobel Prize Winner Kazuo Ishiguro. I had looked forward to reading this as I really loved “Never Let me Go” when the book club read it some years ago and I knew that the two books had much in common, with their dystopian setting and their themes of sacrifice, solitude and exploitation.
Klara is a robot, programmed to be an A.F. or Artificial Friend to a lonely child. She starts life in an A.F. store with other such robots and soon shows she has superior abilities, training herself to observe the world outside the shop window and learn about human behaviour and emotions and thus she is able to develop a degree of emotional intelligence, something scientists still strive to create. The A.F.s are solar- powered and Klara reveres the Sun as a kind of god; her very name means brightness or clarity.
She is chosen by a fourteen and a half year old girl, Josie, and goes to live with her in the countryside. In this world, ‘high rank’ families have their children ‘lifted’, or genetically engineered to enhance their academic ability but this procedure brings risks. Josie had a sister who died as a result and now she herself is very sickly and there are fears that she will not live long. Klara is not only a friend to Josie but she observes and cares for her and a strong bond develops between them. Klara tries to bring health to Josie, invoking the help of the Sun, even though this involves her in some danger and self-sacrifice. In fact, she is more caring than Josie’s own parents whose love is mixed with ambition and self-pity.
Klara is the narrator as well as the protagonist and Ishiguro skilfully makes us aware that she is not human and has a different world view. She sees the world as a series of 2 dimensional rectangles which she translates into 3D reality. When something is not right these may fragment so that at one moment the Mother has different faces and eyes both cruel and sad, a bit like a cubist painting.
Another way in which he conveys her otherness is through language and speech patterns: I always enjoy the rhythms of Ishiguro’s slightly formal style of writing and it is well-suited to the language of a robotic being. Klara often echoes what is said to her and she always addresses the person she is speaking to in the third person. Nevertheless there are moments of poetry in Klara’s descriptions and perceptions of her world.
We are also aware of Klara’s difference from people’s reactions to her – they do not mistake her for a human. It is quite a shock when one woman compares her to a vacuum cleaner and the boys at Josie’s social interaction event think of throwing her across the room to see if she will land on her feet.
Critical reaction to the novel has been mixed- many reviewers praise it as a brilliant work of enchantment but a few find it disappointing. Book Club members thought it was well worth reading but perhaps not so satisfying as “Never Let me Go”. It is a book with layers of possible meanings and It certainly resonates with our current debate over the implications and potential dangers of developing A.I. and one of the central questions of the novel is what it means to be human. The ending is, in a quiet way, unexpected and shocking.