Kazuo Ishiguro doesn’t make things easy for himself. At least in the books of his that I’ve read, he seems determined to burden himself with the most limited narrator through which to tell his stories. Of course, that also creates a lot of work for the reader, who has to piece together what’s really going on from just the scraps given to them by the narrator’s perspective.
The title character of Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro’s eighth and newest novel, is an Artificial Friend (“AF” for short) who begins the book on display in a store in a big city, struggling to understand the world outside the store window from just the things within her line of sight and what she can derive from the magazines strewn about the store’s coffee tables. From that vantage point she nevertheless observes a lot more than most people suspect, wowing the Manager of the store with her insights into humanity.
Klara is eventually purchased by the family of a little girl named Josie, after developing a special bond with her over the course of several visits to the store window. It’s when Klara gets to their home far out in the country that the reader begins to understand that the world of this novel is very different from our own. Josie’s suffering from an illness that comes and goes but often leaves her incapacitated. Her older sister died from a similarly vague condition. Josie attends school virtually, but this seems to be the common state of things in her world, though the neighbor boy Rick doesn’t seem to go to school at all. Though Josie and Rick have a deep bond it’s clear that there are class differences between them that will be extremely difficult for them to overcome.
Klara works out some of what’s going on around her but in other ways seems terribly naive. Her experience of the world has caused her to believe that the Sun has magic healing powers and that this is the key to Josie’s recovery. She goes to great lengths to implore the Sun for its help, even involving Rick in her plan.
Ishiguro is an expert at weaving in details that very gradually build to momentous revelations. It would be easy for the reader to wonder why he keeps bringing up that Josie is sitting for a portrait with an artist in the city, but when the explanation comes it lands with devastating impact.
Through experiencing a world through Klara’s perspective the reader naturally comes to reflect on their own understanding of our own world. How limited is our view of the world and what are we not seeing? How are our beliefs leading us astray, if they are?
Klara and the Sun is the kind of book ideal for book clubs, where the questions it raises will inspire lengthy discussions. But it’s also a slyly entertaining demonstration of how much a master craftsman can do.