I’ve been an Ishiguro fan since falling in love with his first novel, A Pale View of Hills. I have loved all the novels I’ve read by him but I am not a completist. I have avoided Never Let Me Go, because I know what it’s about and I don’t feel strong enough. I have also not read The Buried Giant because I’m a little allergic to anything Game of Thrones-ish or Tolkienian but I think I may try that now, after having heard Ishiguro talking about it.
Both my daughters had read Klara and the Sun and loved it, so in order to be able to discuss it with them and because it was short and because everyone was saying it was a masterpiece, I overcame my normal aversion to anything AI related and downloaded it to my Kindle.
Aversion to AI? Yes, I’m afraid so…I’m not keen on robots and not particularly interested in them. If anything, I think I’m slightly afraid of them. I admire the achievement that lies behind them. I am in awe of the science and as long as the robots are enlisted to help medical procedures, or build cars I feel safe. But once they can be substituted for humans, I’m a little more wary.
I needn’t have worried. Before I reached the end of the first page, I was bewitched. Completely happy to spend the rest of the story in the head/mind/body of Klara and by the end I was as bereft at parting from her as if she’d been fully human. The main achievement of this novel, I think, is to make the reader accept Klara totally. There’s never a moment when you forget she’s artificial (because she’s been programmed to learn from humans and part of what she’s learned is to have what must be called ‘feelings’ even though we know she is incapable of feelings on one level) but also never a moment when you don’t fully sympathise with her and when you aren’t rooting for her and longing with her for certain outcomes.
I never give spoilers when I write reviews but I can tell you that `Klara is chosen to be a companion for a sick teenager called Josie. She goes to live with the family and also meets the family who live next door and a housekeeper called Melania Housekeeper. Josie’s parents are doing all they can to keep their daughter alive. We suspect she’s ill because she’s been ‘uplifted’…. that’s to say, genetically modified in some way. The boy next door, Rick, has not been ‘uplifted’. The plot is spare but constantly gripping and I’m not going to say any more about it.
What I found most startling and striking is the way Ishiguro manages to make an entire fictional universe from so little. Just from Klara’s very limited perspective, a whole physical world is conjured up, in which the Sun is hugely important. Klara is solar powered so of course she regards the Sun as a kind of deity, but I very quickly became a believer too. It’s very hard not to.
The physical landscape is shown to us through Klara’s eyes, and I found it extraordinarily vivid. No one else I’ve read has mentioned this, but I often felt as though I were in an Edward Hopper painting. There’s one particular scene in a diner in the city which reminded me powerfully of Nighthawks. The field between the house and the Barn appeared in my head like one of those Hopper paintings where the grass grows right up to the front door. Ishiguro describes things in the most unflashy way possible. Klara is telling us what she sees, in a straight and matter of fact manner. That’s it. Also, what becomes striking as we progress through the story is the power of the emotions (that’s the only way I can describe them) that Klara is both seeing around her and experiencing for herself.
Can robots have feelings? I’ve heard Ishiguro say that Klara is designed to copy humans and so copying how they feel and how they express that emotion is part of the programming. It’s so skilfully done that by the end, I was unreservedly invested in Klara and the end…well, I won’t spoil it for new readers. What I will say is: it’s still with me. I can’t forget it. And I have a whole new attitude to the Sun.
The other critics were right. I’ll join the chorus. It’s a masterpiece.