Klara and the Sun, Unspoilered

I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel in a day, just as I had read The Remains of the Day the first time and Never Let Me Go, which I finished well past midnight. Ishiguro’s manner of storytelling and the themes of his novels always catch and hold my attention.

Set in the near future, Klara and the Sun is about a robot, an “artificial friend” programmed to help a teenager deal with the anxiety of coming of age. Josie, who chose Klara as her AF, is suffering from an unspecified life-threatening illness. Klara makes it her mission to cure Josie.

Minds and Souls of Appeasers and Robots

I read The Remains of the Day several times, watched its superb Merchant-Ivory film adaptation, and used both in my narrative and management course. My co-author Beth Herst and I wrote about the novel and film in Governing Fables in a chapter on narratives about appeasement in the UK. There were many books and films attempting to understand Churchill and the opponents of appeasement but very few attempting to understand the appeasers. Ishiguro did this brilliantly with his characters Lord Darlington and his faithful butler Mister Stevens.

In Klara and the Sun Ishiguro returns to the theme of domestic service but instead of fathoming the minds of people holding a particular political position he depicts an artificial intelligence, a sentient being with an endless capacity for learning and an aptitude for empathy.

Ishiguro imagines a subtle and powerful mind trapped in a machine and asks how it would walk on uneven ground, what it would “see” with its optical equipment, and how, as a solar powered entity, it would relate to the Sun. Ishiguro has given Klara a distinctive pattern of speech, as he did Stevens. Klara is a compelling character who elicited my interest and sympathy.

Ishiguro’s Distinctive Storytelling

Ishiguro’s distinctive method of storytelling involves characters conversing without explaining the underlying assumptions. This pattern is reinforced by his giving words critical to the plot slightly or even radically different meanings from those we normally attribute to them. The task for the reader is to follow the hints Ishiguro’s characters gradually provide and to begin to understand the context and meaning of their actions. In The Remains of the Day we come to understand that Lord Darlington, an urbane aristocrat with a deep sense of noblesse oblige, is actually an echt-collaborator with the Nazis. And in Never Let Me Go we gradually realize that the students at a rural boarding school are really clones who whose sole raison d’etre is to provide body parts until they have “completed.” So it is with Klara and the Sun and its boxes and oblongs and discussion of children being lifted and adults being substituted.

Text and Paratexts

Literary and film studies now refer to paratexts: professional reviews, reader reviews on Amazon, and other forms of online discussion generated by a novel, film, or television series. I believe that a great novel generates great paratexts. This is the case for Klara and the Sun’s first round of professional reviews. These include Anne Enright and Alex Preston in The Guardian, Helen Shaw in New York, Judith Slulevitz in The Atlantic, and Radhika Jones in The New York Times and Giles Harvey’s profile of Ishiguro in The New York Times Magazine. Each is a rewarding read on its own.

I plan to read Klara and the Sun a second time, much more slowly than the first. Were I teaching a course on technology and society I would use it, just as I used The Remains of the Day in a course on narrative and management. I was entertained and transported and it left me contemplating both its characters and its themes. I think it will be considered a classic and I urge you to read it.


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