Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel has arrived, and it’s a big deal. Not only is it the first novel he’s published since winning the Nobel Prize in 2017, but it’s always a big deal getting a new Ishiguro novel. Compared to other authors, he does not publish that often. Klara and the Sun is his eighth novel in a forty-year career, and it comes six years after his most recent, 2015’s The Buried Giant, which came ten years after the one before that, 2005’s Never Let Me Go. I was not a fan of either of those, so I was wary of this new one, particularly after reading its premise, but I was hopeful.
I won’t hide the ball here: I didn’t like Klara and the Sun at all.
Before sitting down to type this, I read Klara and the Sun twice, once in an ARC and once again by listening to it on audio. I still have not revisited Never Let Me Go or The Buried Giant, so I sometimes wonder if I just didn’t give them my full attention. I’d like to find the magic others have in those works. I hoped going through Klara and the Sun twice, in two different presentations, might help me find something in this new book from a Nobel Prize winning author I once loved. Alas, I think this is Ishiguro’s worst.
Many readers I respect — indeed, look up to — have given positive reviews Klara and the Sun. Here is John Self in The Times, Ron Charles in The Washington Post, James Wood in The New Yorker, Sam Sacks in The Wall Street Journal, Radhika Jones in The New York Times, and M.A. Orthofer at The Complete Review. I am clearly misaligned here, so please insert a big “for me” in front of every sentence of this post. For me, the story didn’t work. For me, the prose was boring. For me, the novel’s themes rang hollow. Etc.
Before I go further, in case you’re not aware of the premise of the book that’s being covered by everyone, it’s time to step back and briefly summarize the setup.
Klara is an Artificial Friend, or AF as the high-tech product is known in the book. When the book starts, she is in the store, among a group of other AFs, waiting to be sold so she can make some child happy. The shop is her entire world; the other AFs, her friends and competitors. She has never been outside. The sun is magical since it is what charges her batteries but also because she recognizes some intangible power to its rays.
I was still on board here, if tentatively. Klara is our first-person narrator. Because her perspective is limited and, though intelligent, child-like, we are likewise limited. I liked how Ishiguro established the setting, including the larger world bit by bit, through the hopeful, naïve perspective of an artificial intelligence. It’s been done before — many reviewers have brought up A.I., for example, as well as Toy Story and The Velveteen Rabbit — but there was something about Klara that stood out, and I was happy to go along with her optimism, particularly since the gaps in her understanding served one of Ishiguro’s trademarks: the slow unveiling of a darker, sinister secret, often through eyes that cannot or are unwilling to see.
Klara is anxious — as anxious as a machine can be — that she fulfill her purpose, something that gets less likely as newer, improved AFs come on the market and smugly walk around the store. Not that things are better outside among the real children.
This setting introduces Klara and the artificial intelligence as well as some of the dystopian themes. As the novel go on we learn that not only is artificial intelligence getting upgraded and leaving older AFs in the dust, but real human children are also being genetically “lifted” in order to gain advantage, leaving poorer children in the dust (though the process of “lifting” is not without significant risks of physical disability and even death).
One day when it was her turn in the front window, Klara meets Josie, an adolescent passer-by who for some reason latches on to Klara as the ideal AF. It takes a bit of time, but eventually Josie’s mom purchases Klara, and off Klara goes to her new home.
Here is where most of my issues started to arise. I kept waiting for this world — even its adolescent love story — to come alive. I didn’t love Never Let Me Go or The Buried Giant, but each had a strong atmosphere and the dread was palpable. I never felt Klara and the Sun really got there; I don’t think it even got close. As Klara and the Sun proceeded onward, it felt generic in both world and character. I imagined the characters sitting around in beige rooms, having interminable conversations in front of Klara that dropped breadcrumbs about the sinister goings-on that Klara didn’t understand. I am not sure I’ll remember much about the book other than its premise in a few months since few moments or interactions felt vivid to me.
There is one moment I’ll put here, though, that I hope to remember. Klara, knowing Josie needs help, begins communing with the sun. The first time she does this, in Mr. McBain’s barn, struck me both times I read the book:
The interior was filled with orange light. There were particles of hay drifting in the air like evening insects, and his patterns were falling all across the barn’s wooden floor. When I glanced behind me my own shadow looked like a tall thin tree ready to break in the wind.
This was my favorite part, and it is longer than what I have shared here. This was the evocative prose I hoped for in an Ishiguro novel, and it stood out because it was so rare. The book is laden with those long sequences of dialogue that felt more and more like their only purposes was to artificially reveal Ishiguro’s cards.
Let me offer an example. As I said above, many of these long passages don’t, to me (I’ll say that explicitly here) serve to develop characters. Rather, they serve to work through the slow unveiling of the darker plot. Here, Josie’s mom is planning to take Josie into town to continue her visits with the suspicious Mr. Capaldi. Josie’s mom begins her lengthy dialogue with “As you know” and proceeds to explain things to an AF who really doesn’t need to rehash things she already knows:
‘As you know, Josie was in the process of getting her portrait done. The times she came by your store, that’s why we were in town. There’s been a long break on account of her health, but she’s stronger now and so I want her to go in for another sitting. Mr. Capaldi’s been very patient and kept everything on hold.’
‘I see. So will Josie be required to sit for a long time?’
‘Mr. Capaldi’s good at not tiring her. He’s able to take photographs and work from those. Even so, he needs her to come from time to time. I’m telling you this because I want you to accompany Josie on this trip. I think she’d like you with her.’
‘Oh yes. I’d like that very much.’
The Mother stepped further into the kitchen and now I could see just one edge of her face illuminated by the hall light.
‘I want you, Klara, to be with her when she goes in to see Mr. Capaldi. In fact, Mr. Capaldi is keen to meet you. He takes a special interest in AFs. You could call it his passion. That okay with you?’
‘Of course. I’ll look forward to meeting Mr. Capaldi.’
‘He may have a few questions for you. To do with his research. Because as I say, he’s fascinated by AFs. You won’t mind that?’
‘No, of course not. And I believe a trip into the city would be good for Josie now she’s a little stronger.’
‘Good. Oh and we may well have passengers. In the car I mean. Our neighbors are needing a ride.’
I think that back-and-forth is awful (not a unique impression I had when reading the book). Mother is not really the kind of person we’d expect to share so much with Klara. With “just one edge of her face illuminated by the hall light,” Ishiguro has her reiterate all of this for us, especially Mr. Capaldi’s interest in AFs. These are breadcrumbs, and we see just where they’re leading. Beyond that, there are some strange, seemingly unedited sentences lounging around in the stilted air of this prose. “Our neighbors are needing a ride”? This book takes place in the United States, so I cannot pass over such sentences by thinking something like, oh, that must be how they say this in England.
My misgivings can be explained away by the novel’s themes and structure. I can see the argument that this is how one would talk to an AF. Mother knows she is artificial, and so she communicates in a bit of a stilted, artificial manner. That may be, and it may have been deliberate, but I’d say beware. Some of this just feels like bad writing.
Look at one more example from one of the book’s major subplots, the relationship between Josie and Rick, a neighbor boy who has not been lifted. Josie and Rick have asked Klara to leave the room, but Klara pushes back because she has been asked to act not just as a friend but also as a chaperone. Here is Klara’s response.
‘I always wanted to give privacy. It’s just that there was concern about hanky-panky.’ They both looked puzzled, so I went on: ‘I was instructed to ensure against hanky-panky. That’s why I always remained in the room, even during the bubble game.’
‘Klara,’ Josie said, ‘Rick and I are not about to engage in sex, okay? We’ve got a few things to say to each other, that’s all.’
Josie’s “engage in sex” sticks out here. I might expect that clinical talk to come from Klara, but here instead of making her childlike Ishiguro makes her childish, and she calls it “hanky-panky.” Throughout the novel Klara never says the phrase “engage in sex,” so it doesn’t ring true to me that this is Josie simply communicating with her AF, whom she is trying to dismiss in this passage. Is her strange speech (again, not unique to this passage, but I find this passage emblematic) indicative of Josie’s “lifted” status? Is it indicative of Josie’s isolation? Maybe, but again I think that’s generous. Even if it is deliberate and underlines the themes, it still makes for some uninspiring reading.
I think Klara and the Sun is Never Let Me Go narrated by Stevens. I would have liked that had it been done differently. I’ll end by acknowledging again that I’m clearly misaligned in some way, but I cannot find it in me to respond positively to Klara and the Sun.