There are many things Kazuo Ishiguro does brilliantly, but one he does perhaps most uniquely—especially as we move past the glut of thrillers using Gone Girl and/or The Woman On The Train as a comp title—is create a thoroughly unreliable narrator. Unlike the tipsy or mentally ill women who have largely come to define the trope, Ishiguro’s are rarely compromised or deceitful, but rather tend to be unreliable simply in the sense that they accept and to some degree conform to their respective cruel or senseless worlds. See: Never Let Me Go. See also: The Buried Giant.
Klara and the Sun continues in this skillful tradition.
The titular Klara is an AF, or “artificial friend,” an acronym I had to keep reminding myself because I spend too much time on the internet and my brain automatically assumes AF means “as f**k” to show the magnitude of something (maybe they don’t use the acronym so much in England? Or maybe this is an issue for youth?).
Anyway, Klara is basically an android with deeply empathetic artificial intelligence, because she is designed and programmed to attend to the needs of the child who buys her and takes her home, who in Klara’s case is 14-year-old Josie. Josie, who is smart and rich (everyone with an AF is rich because AFs are expensive AF), really needs Klara because Josie is also sick with a disease more hinted at than specifically defined (also in true Ishiguro style). Josie’s sister died of the disease, which, minor spoiler, seems to be some sort of side effect of the process of “lifting,” improving one’s genes, so Klara is supposed to be a companion for Josie when Josie is feeling poorly, as well as identify when Josie needs more acute medical assistance. But as Josie’s condition worsens, Klara tries to think of ways she can go beyond her duties as an AF to help Josie get better.
AFs recharge in the sun, and Klara remembers a time when she looked out the window at the AF store and saw a homeless man and his dog seemingly dead…and then brought back to life by the sun’s glow. So the sun, she reasons, can likewise help Josie if Klara asks the sun very, very nicely. With a bargain made with the sun, Klara sets off to fulfill her part, but things get more complicated as Josie’s illness progresses; as it turns out, Klara isn’t the only one going to drastic measures to let Josie live.
Klara, as our first-person narrator, is so skillfully drawn in her earnest, almost human observations. Ishiguro gives her flawless consistency, and even where a lesser author would find clarity suffering as a result, the gaps between the curtain are just large enough for us to glimpse what’s really happening—a glimpse, and nothing more. Which seems to be exactly what Ishiguro wants. There’s plenty left unexplored and undefined, and there was a chasm of missing information near the end, I felt, but I do think that lack of exterior perspective does serve to make Klara feel more like a single perspective within a much, much wider world, rather than the reason that world exists in the first place. Within that dissonance of what Klara perceives and the “reality” we see between the cracks, I found myself bracing for Klara’s eventual disappointment when all was revealed. This is somewhat of a spoiler, but the disappointment I was anticipating didn’t quite come—but another one, a darker one, did. I’m unsure of how I like that (irrelevant, frankly), or how well I thought the disorientation of the aforementioned chasm of missing info was placed in the story (more relevant).
But it is a story that’s sticking to me, and I loved reading Ishiguro’s characteristic prose. I’m thinking a lot more about relationships and the exchange of effort and the relationship between humanity and what we consider things, and I’m also glad for that. Klara is sometimes bright and sometimes melancholy, but always loveable.