What would happen if our ‘what-goes-on-behind-closed-doors’ was witnessed? What would it be like to have our lives seen and interpreted through impartial and inhuman eyes?
Klara and the Sun is the eighth novel by the Nobel Prize-winning British writer Kazuo Ishiguro. In this book, the story is narrated by Klara, an artificial friend (for that read android or AF) who can be bought by parents as a companion for their children. Klara inhabits a sort of literary laboratory where human behaviour is observed by another species.
In the opening scene, the AF’s world is revealed to be a shop where they are periodically transported from the dark stockroom to sunlit windows. As she stands in the window of the store waiting to be sold, Klara learns about the world outside and observes the light. She soon realises that being in the sun’s pattern is the place to be – the optimum angle in which to catch the eye of would-be buyers. This is a vital clue to the power and importance of the sun throughout the novel. In an interaction with Boy AF Rex, we’re also privy to the underlying competitive market trajectory of rising stars and failing product lines.
But the themes in the novel don’t just apply to the robotic characters. Through Klara’s eyes, we witness her understanding of humans and the interactions she has with them. In one memorable passage, Klara is moved to the store window and partnered with another AF, Rosa, who doesn’t possess the same cleverness or powers of observation. Our narrator doesn’t miss a trick as she sits, mannequin-like, in the window and observes the human traffic on the street.
While intelligent, Klara has her shortcomings. After all, she’s not a human being. But this is what makes her an endearing and fascinating character. Klara is eventually chosen by 14-year-old Josie, who lives with her mother in a remote region. And so Klara attempts to piece together an understanding of the world the little girl inhabits. The information we are given is filtered through Klara’s eyes (her screens), which divide and glitch when she experiences stress or uncertainty.
Even though the story is difficult to place, there are many conventional human traits and recognisable objects which ground the reader firmly in the narrative. But it is difficult to fathom a future for this world, and its blurred edges reflect the limited scope of Klara’s vision.
It feels like Ishiguro has created a minimal universe in order to show the reader how they might find purpose and meaning in mundanity and everyday relationships. This is evident in the way that he balances Josie’s difficult and unreachable family members with more relatable characters who exist on the periphery of the narrative. Thankfully, these characters bring great comfort in a world of unease. There’s Melania Housekeeper who is pragmatic and hilarious and Rick, Josie’s worldly-wise best friend and confidant, who provides a sense of safety for Josie who often seems like the most precarious child in the world.
But it’s no mistake that Klara, our naïve heroine, is the most human of all the novel’s characters. And yet she manages to do something humanly impossibly by traversing the metaphysical terrain of human relationships and mending a broken spirit. Klara represents opting for hope and belief rather than despair and fatalism. What better message for 2021?
Klara and the Sun is published by Faber and available to buy now.