Saturday, October 8, 2022

REVIEW: Klara and the Sun (book) by Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara and the Sun is a blend of literary fiction and sci-fi. I bought my copy brand new.


Klara is an AF, an Artificial Friend. At the beginning of this book, she lives in a store where she generally stands in one place for hours or days at a time. Every once in a while, certain AFs are assigned to the store's most prime spot, the window, where they not only have the best access to sunlight (AFs are solar-powered) but also the best chance of catching a customer's eye.

Although Klara isn't the newest AF model, she's special in her own way, more empathetic and curious than many of the other AFs in the store. One day, she catches the eye of a sick little girl named Josie, who promises to come back and take her home with her. Although she's warned not to put her faith in the promises of children, Josie does eventually come back for her, and Klara enters the next phase of her existence, learning how to be the best possible AF for Josie.

Klara gradually learns about Josie and her relationships with others, including her mother, father, and childhood best friend, Rick. Josie's health is fragile from the start, but Klara is hopeful that she can somehow find a way to help her.

I read this for a book club meeting. My first attempt at reading one of Kazuo Ishiguro's books, The Unconsoled, went terribly and ended in a DNF, so I wasn't looking forward to this. Thankfully, Klara and the Sun was much easier reading than The Unconsoled, so I was at least able to get through the whole thing. However, I still don't think Ishiguro's books are for me.

Early on, I had to double check when this was first published, because everything from the dialogue to the characters and theme read like it was decades old. But no - this first came out in 2021. I'm going to guess that the people who enjoyed this book the most are probably primarily literary fiction readers. In the world of science fiction, Klara and the Sun didn't cover any new ground and largely felt outdated.

By the end of the book, the only character I maybe liked was Rick. Everyone else either annoyed or repulsed me. I'm pretty sure I was supposed to feel sympathy for both Josie and Klara. However, Klara was a simplistic and childlike "happy slave" character whose entire focus was the humans she'd been built to serve. Readers were meant to believe that she was "special" because she was more curious than other AFs created around the same time as her and more empathetic than newer model AFs, but both her empathy and her curiosity had very sharply defined borders that, as far as I could tell, never budged. For example, I have no idea how she spent so many years around humans without learning how they work. I never want to hear about "the Sun's special nourishment" ever again. Also, her reaction to Josie's mother's plans was jarringly cold.

I didn't really dislike Josie until nearly the end of the book, although I never found her to be a believable teenage girl. I kept forgetting that both Josie and Rick were teens rather than 10-year-olds, because they both read much younger than they actually were. I wanted to appreciate Josie's determination to protect Klara and ensure she was treated with respect, but she crumpled like paper when it really counted. In a group of her peers, for example, she allowed Klara to be treated as a mildly amusing object. Eventually, Josie's treatment of Klara reminded me strongly of the toys in Toy Story, except worse, because she was well aware that Klara was a sentient being who cared about her.

Many of the characters in this book could have used a good deal of therapy and grief counseling. Josie's mother, for example, creeped me out from the start when she refused to buy Klara until after seeing how well she could imitate Josie's walking style, well before the reasons behind her request were revealed. Josie's father wasn't much better, and if ever there was a character who should have asked Klara more questions about her plans, it was him.

Interpretations of this book in my book club group varied widely. One woman viewed it as a statement about helicopter parenting, which devolved into complaints about "kids these days." Another saw Klara's obsession with "the Sun's special nourishment" as a sort of AF religion but felt that whatever Ishiguro was trying to say about religion and faith was left incomplete by the end. Overall, despite some tense moments, our group discussion was good and interesting, but I'm becoming increasingly frustrated with what seems to be the dominant view among group members that genre fiction doesn't have enough substance to inspire similarly interesting discussions. 

This was readable but mediocre at best, and I wouldn't recommend it to fans of science fiction. I'm not thrilled that this is only the first of two Ishiguro books among our book club selections for the year, although this did at least prove to me that he has written things I can manage to finish.

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