Book Review: Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara and the Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2021)

Kazuo Ishiguro is one of my favourite living authors and so as soon as I heard he had a new book coming out in 2021 I immediately pre-ordered Klara and the Sun. Last week, I had the chance to tune into a live, on-line discussion between Ishiguro and Souvankham Thammavongsa (recent Giller Prize winner and author of the short story collection How to Pronounce Knife).

I’ll start by saying that I began reading Klara and the Sun with the expectation of enjoying it and the novel fulfilled that expectation. I’ve seen very mixed reviews over Ishiguro’s latest offering (his first since being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature) but I thought it was very much in line with his previous work. There are obvious parallels to Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant (which I loved but know many readers did not). Here again, Ishiguro explores the idea of what it means to be human, what love looks like, and what the future of our world might look like.

Klara is our main character and narrator. She is an Artificial Friend, or AF, a sort of robot designed to keep a child company. We are introduced to Klara while she is still in the store, eagerly awaiting the moment when she is chosen by a human. Klara is inquisitive and observant. She loves to watch the world and to watch what the humans do outside the store window. Klara and the other AFs gain energy from the sun, constantly seeking out the sun’s power.

Eventually Klara is chosen by a young girl named Josie. Josie is smart and funny, lonely and unwell. She lives with her mother and her health seems to be in frequent flux, without anyone taking the time to explain to Klara just what is the matter with Josie. Josie is largely alone, learning from tutors on her “oblong” (something like a tablet), their house remote from others. Their only neighbour is Rick and his mother. Rick and Josie have been friends for years and are still extremely loyal to each other but something has recently changed between them, something that is linked to Josie’s illness. Klara, believing the sun to be the source of all health, formulates a plan to save Josie’s life.

There is a lot in this story that is never spoken out loud. As in Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro slowly unfolds a strange and different world, leaving it up to the reader to connect the clues and, in some places, to decide how the world works. Klara makes an excellent narrator for this because although she notices so much around her, she knows very little and her worldview is extremely limited. Even though she is extraordinarily attuned to Josie’s personality and needs, Klara can witness conversations between Josie and Rick and still never fully understand what they’re actually talking about.

Because we’re seeing the world through the eyes of a non-human character, there are also scenes where what Klara sees that don’t make sense to the reader. There are moments when Klara’s vision and comprehension seem to be altered, a sort of malfunction that was sometimes difficult to follow along with but was a good reminder that Klara interacts with the world in an entirely new way.

It was completely fascinating to sit in on the conversation between Thammavongsa and Ishiguro. And it really did feel more like a conversation than an interview as Ishiguro was as curious about her work and experience as she was about his. Ishiguro also touched on his past as a songwriter and how that has affected his development as a writer, compared with Thammavongsa’s experience as a poet and short story writer. They were both as charming and enjoyable as I could have hoped.

22 thoughts on “Book Review: Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro”

  1. Lovely review – I never know what to expect when I’m picking up an Ishiguro novel, because he’s written some of my favourite and some of my least favourite books! This sounds great, and I’m looking forward to reading it once it makes it to my library.

    1. Interestingly I think it’s the same thing done either well or badly (for me) – Ishiguro excels at telling a very emotional story with an extremely restrained and reserved narrative voice. That’s what made me love The Remains of the Day so very, very much, and to a lesser extent Never Let Me Go. But sometimes the tone isn’t consistent and the narrator ends up coming across as either unpleasant or unhinged (When We Were Orphans didn’t work for me at all), and because so much of his work is about that narrative voice for me, a really unpleasant narrator = a really unpleasant reading experience.

    2. That’s a really good point. The only Ishiguro I really struggled with was The Unconsoled. When We Were Orphans was the first book I read by him and I loved it but I wonder if I’d feel differently returning to it now. (I recently recommended it to my husband and he struggled with it.) Your feelings on narrator make me think you’ll enjoy this one because Klara has a definite sweetness to her. She’s naive but good-hearted and that constrained Ishiguro narrative fits well with an artificial life form.

    3. Thank you! I think this is very in line with Ishiguro’s previous work, especially his most recent, so hopefully you will be able to count it among the ones you love!

  2. There is a sweetness to this story that I get through your review, and I do like this idea that readers decide what’s going on, especially since Klara isn’t human. I always feel like it’s a cop-out in science fiction when a writer makes us fall in love with a robot simply because the robot is pretty much a human.

    1. There is definitely a sweetness here. In a couple of interviews, Ishiguro has said that the story began for him as a children’s story but his daughter told him it was too dark. And I think some of that childlike energy still pervades the final product here. Klara is sweet and naive and definitely inhuman (in a way that sometimes children seem a little inhuman!). Hearing Ishiguro talk in the interview, it was clear that he really wanted the reader to remember that she wasn’t human and that she doesn’t view the world the way we do.

  3. I’m so pleased you enjoyed this! It seems to have really divided opinion, but it’s been tempting me for the last week or so and I think I might have to give in and order it soon.

    1. I definitely went into with the expectation that I would love it and it lived up to that for me. While I can see where others didn’t love it, there are also things other readers have disliked in Ishiguro’s previous works that I still loved. Hopefully you enjoy it too when you get to read it!

  4. So I’m ashamed to say that when news of this book came out, a bunch of people were super excited about him and his new book, but I wasn’t familiar with him at all, his name didn’t ring a bell! I’d like to read this one, it sounds good, but I’m really embarrassed that I never even heard of him before this-how can I call myself a bookworm? LOL

  5. This book really appeals to me. I still haven’t read any of his other books (even though I have a couple) – he might be one of those writers whose most recent work I start with and then make my way back.

    1. One thing that’s so interesting to me about his work is the way he very clearly keeps returning to the same themes and working through them in very different stories. The first Ishiguro I ever read was When We Were Orphans and I loved it. I also really like An Artist of the Floating World and The Buried Giant. The only one I didn’t get on with was The Unconsoled. I think over time his writing has become tighter and maybe more controlled so it would be an interesting endeavour to read his work from most recent backward.

  6. Great review! I definitely agree with you on many points. I thought it fascinating to look at the world through the eyes of a not-quite-human character. Klara is such a lovely character but most of the time I just wanted to jump into the story and tell her how wrong she is (as when she thinks the beggar man has died) haha

    1. Thank you! Yes, it can be so frustrating when you just want to tell a character what’s going on! For me, Ishiguro walked that line of knowing vs not knowing pretty well and it never felt like he was using it to draw out the page count or create false tension.

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