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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Klara and the Sun

Kazuo Ishiguro

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To purchase Klara and the Sun

Title: Klara and the Sun
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Genre: Novel
Written: 2021
Length: 303 pages
Availability: Klara and the Sun - US
Klara and the Sun - UK
Klara and the Sun - Canada
Klara und die Sonne - Deutschland
Klara y el sol - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : well-developed tale, neatly spun around loneliness and faith

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic . 4/2021 Judith Shulevitz
Bookforum . 3-5/2021 Dennis Lim
The Economist . 6/3/2021 .
Evening Standard . 25/2/2021 Ian Thomson
Financial Times . 25/2/2021 Jon Day
The Guardian A 25/2/2021 Anne Enright
The Japan Times . 20/3/2021 Iain Maloney
Literary Review . 3/2021 James Purdon
London Rev. of Books . 18/3/2021 Thomas Jones
The LA Times . 23/2/2021 Charles Finch
New Scientist . 2/3/2021 Rowan Hooper
New Statesman . 26/2/2021 Leo Robson
The NY Times Book Rev. . 7/3/2021 Radhika Jones
The New Yorker . 8/3/2021 James Wood
The Observer A+ 1/3/2021 Alex Preston
Prospect . 2/3/2021 Miranda France
The Spectator . 6/3/2021 Sameer Rahim
Sunday Times . 28/1/2021 Peter Kemp
The Telegraph B 25/2/2021 James Walton
The Times . 24/2/2021 John Self
TLS . 5/3/2021 Edmund Gordon
Wall St. Journal . 26/2/2021 Sam Sacks
The Washington Post . 2/3/2021 Ron Charles

  From the Reviews:
  • "Girl AF Klara is both the embodiment of the dehumanized server and its refutation. (...) Klara and the Sun doesn't strive for uncanniness. It aspires to enchantment, or to put it another way, reenchantment, the restoration of magic to a disenchanted world. Ishiguro drapes realism like a thin cloth over a primordial cosmos." - Judith Shulevitz, The Atlantic

  • "It is both logical and a touch self-parodic for a novelist whose characters often resemble automata to write an entire book in the voice of a machine imitating human speech patterns. (...) In Never Let Me Go the persistent understatement of the narration is crucial to the book's power -- a slow-dawning horror seeps between the lines and lingers well beyond its conclusion. But Klara and the Sun lacks any equivalent tension: its setting proves to be a generic dystopia, and Klara, even for this master of withholding, may be too blank a slate, incapable of evasion or repression. Klara's fixation on the Sun comes to stand in for a larger problem. The shadows are where meaning typically resides for Ishiguro, and in this book, they are simply too well illuminated." - Dennis Lim, Bookforum

  • "Part of the book's pleasure is that it trusts the reader to infer such details. What makes the subtly sinister setting doubly strange is that it comes refracted through the partial understanding of the narrator (.....) His speculative scenario of technological innovation is also a domestic satire on aspirational parenting. Philosophical questions of faith and mortality mix with storylines involving boy trouble and mother-daughter strife. Josie's sickness is a metaphor for the pressures of a hot-housed adolescence, yet the story holds attention on its own terms, too." - The Economist

  • "Narrated in the first person by Klara, the novel is a slow-burner: Ishiguro is in no hurry to get the plot airborne. The plot reveals itself subtly. (...) In lesser hands, a fable about robot love and loneliness might verge on the trite. With its hushed intensity of emotion, Klara and the Sun confirms Ishiguro as a master prose stylist. In his signature transparent prose Ishiguro considers weighty themes of social isolation and alienation. Can artificial life ever be worth more than a human life ? That is the question posed here." - Ian Thomson, Evening Standard

  • "This is a book about the big questions of existence: what is a person ? What role does creativity play in everyday lives ? How should we respond to the unfairness of the world ? The fact that these questions come to feel worth taking seriously, rather than banal, or irresolvable, is due to Ishiguro's innate unshowiness." - Jon Day, Financial Times

  • "Ishiguro is very interested in delay and restoration. Loneliness and waiting are almost the same thing here; estrangements and reunifications run through the book. (...) The novel requires the reader to ask and settle, over and again, while the philosophical content quietly takes hold. Klara and the Sun is a book about what it is to be human. The fact that Ishiguro can make such huge concerns seem so essential and so simple is just one of the reasons he was awarded the Nobel prize. (...) People will absolutely love this book, in part because it enacts the way we learn how to love." - Anne Enright, The Guardian

  • "In this sense it's a classic "fish out of water" sci-fi story where the non-human narrator amusingly misunderstands human foibles and makes elementary mistakes about the nature of things that turn out to be enlightened nuggets of inspiration. Out of the mouth of babes, and all that. (...) Klara and the Sun is a very contemporary book. (...) Klara and the Sun is both a new Ishiguro novel and a classic Ishiguro novel. If you aren't already a fan then this book is unlikely to change your mind." - Iain Maloney, The Japan Times

  • "(T)he conditions imagined by Ishiguro are also reflections of our own society, in which wealth and privilege already shape life chances. (...) An artificial friend she may be, but it is Klara's friendship with Josie that gives her story real meaning. In a society that has abandoned any clear distinction between the artificial and the real, that may be the most anyone can hope for." - James Purdon, Literary Review

  • "Klara and the Sun is -- just about, technically -- a science fiction novel. (...) (I)t doesn't matter how Klara's mind works, because she isn't really a robot. She's a much older form of artificial intelligence, a much older kind of artificial friend: she's a fictional character. It may be inherently impossible to write a novel that openly poses such questions as whether robots can be said to have souls, or to be conscious, or capable of feeling love, or of inspiring and reciprocating sympathy in people. By making them characters in a story, you aren't asking the question: you've already answered it." - Thomas Jones, London Review of Books

  • "(A) meditation in the subtlest shades on the subject of whether our species will be able to live with everything it has created. (...) Klara and the Sun is a distinctly “mature” novel -- as assured as ever, but slapdash in places compared to the author's meticulous earlier work. And he's never been strong with dialogue (his books are so profoundly interior). But these minor criticisms glance off Ishiguro's work like bullets off the hull of a battleship." - Charles Finch, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Ishiguro creates a sort of nostalgic dystopia. He lays a blanket of melancholy over a recognisable but slightly off-kilter world. His style is one of retro science fiction comprising an old-fashioned sensibility and a chilling technology from the future. (...) Klara is a complex and interesting protagonist. (...) In the end of this novel, Ishiguro seems to say that humans and human-level AI will never get along, and that there is some insoluble mystery about human nature." - Rowan Hooper, New Scientist

  • "Klara and the Sun is certainly a resonant experience, a sort of tone poem that, like most of Ishiguro's fiction, recalls the title of one of his surrealist film scripts: The Saddest Music in the World. If I can't decide what he is going for, I'm hardly inclined to blame him. Equivocation is an under-employed response to works of art that reject existing forms, but in the case of Klara and the Sun it seems the only way of reconciling my boredom and annoyance with the patience and humility that genius deserves." - Leo Robson, New Statesman

  • "Klara and the Sun takes place in the uncomfortably near future, and banal language is redeployed with sinister portent. (...) Klara is likable enough -- as she was manufactured to be -- but it's hard to empathize with her on the page, which is maybe the point. The stilted affect that so often characterizes Ishiguro's prose and dialogue -- an incantatory flatness that belies its revelatory ability -- serves its literal function. Klara's machine-ness never recedes." - Radhika Jones, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Ishiguro uses his inhuman, all too human narrators to gaze upon the theological heft of our lives, and to call its bluff. (...) Ishiguro keeps his eye on the human connection. Only Ishiguro, I think, would insist on grounding this speculative narrative so deeply in the ordinary" - James Wood, The New Yorker

  • "This is a book -- a brilliant one, by the way -- that feels very much of a piece with Never Let Me Go, again exploring what it means to be not-quite-human, drawing its power from the darkest shadows of the uncanny valley. (...) It's the contemporary resonances that hit hardest in the novel, though. Ishiguro had apparently almost finished the novel when the pandemic hit, yet on almost every page there's a passage that feels eerily prescient of our locked-down, stressed-out, mysophobic times. (...) What's beyond doubt is that Ishiguro has written another masterpiece, a work that makes us feel afresh the beauty and fragility of our humanity." - Alex Preston, The Observer

  • "Klara and the Sun uses elements of both fable and dystopia to turn some familiar ideas on their heads. (...) If there's a message here for us, it probably isn't the one we're looking for. I don't think Klara and the Sun is about the danger of using artificial intelligence to satisfy the human need to love, although that may be the headline story. (...) Having very much enjoyed the first two thirds of Klara and the Sun, I was disappointed by an ending that veered too close to Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince -- but perhaps disappointment was always part of the author's plan. (...) This may be a novel that begins its real work on a reader only once the last page is turned." - Miranda France, Prospect

  • "Klara and the Sun is about learning to love. (...) Ishiguro sets us puzzles along the way; but, like a beginner's crossword, nothing is especially hard to work out. He pulls off the authorial trick of having an unreliable narrator who helpfully includes all the necessary information at the appropriately dramatic moment.(...) The first 200 pages of Klara and the Sun can try the reader's patience. (...) But the last 100 pages mostly redeem the novel. As with Ishiguro's other books, it works on you without you quite realising. But the danger of over-explanation is always present." - Sameer Rahim, The Spectator

  • "As ever, Ishiguro imagines all of this with a thoroughness that borders on the painstaking -- although luckily without ever crossing into the full-on punishing, as in the Tolkienian longueurs of The Buried Giant or the 500-page dream narrative of The Unconsoled. And yet, while this book is never as boring as those were, many readers might be left just as baffled." - James Walton, The Telegraph

  • "(N)ot everything becomes clear, and for the reader -- even more than for the narrator -- there are areas of obscurity that seem impossible to penetrate. Ishiguro has made a striking effort to inhabit a non-human consciousness, and the way Klara perceives the world is in various respects entirely alien. (...) These characters inhabit a frighteningly uncertain and unjust world, but they are more or less equal to it as long as they can keep some sort of hope alive (.....) The novel touches on themes to do with the ethics of AI, the problems of social inequality and the contradictions of parental love, but Ishiguro is much less a novelist of ideas than he is a virtuoso of mood music, and the prevailing tone is one of tenderness and gentle optimism. (...) Klara and the Sun is a pretty strange piece of work. (...) (I)ts final emphasis, the impression it gives of quiet positivity, is radically different from anything else he has written." - Edmund Gordon, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(I)f the weird complications of technology frame the plot, the real subject, as always in Ishiguro's dusk-lit fiction, is the moral quandary of the human heart. (...) Another author would have been eager to elaborate on the dystopian features of the not-too-distant era, but Ishiguro always implies, never details. One reads Ishiguro in a defensive crouch, afraid to have our worst suspicions confirmed." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Klara of the title is an android, a so-called Artificial Friend (AF) designed to provide companionship to children and adolescents. A "top-range B2", she is not quite the latest model -- the B3s have enhancements that she lacks -- but her artificial intelligence is quite advanced: the sales pitch the Manager at the store where she is on display makes regarding her emphasizes her:

appetite for observing and learning. Her ability to absorb and blend everything she sees around her is quite amazing. As a result, she now has the most sophisticated understanding of any AF in this store, B3s not excepted.
       Of course, one of the reasons she has the most sophisticated understanding is because she's been sitting in the store for a while. Impressive though AFs are, they're apparently also quite a luxury item -- and there's the question of personal fit of child and AF; as a consequence, they don't exactly seem to be flying off the shelves (and once the B3s are in stock, these naturally attract more interest as the latest thing). Klara still gets her turn in the front-window display, but, as she continues not find a buyer, she's clearly sinking in the store's pecking order.
       Klara is also the narrator of this story. Her observations are not exactly child-like, but they are in many ways similarly limited. There is only so much she has been exposed to, and while she can piece together things she observes and picks up information where she can -- including, for example, magazines -- much of the world remains a mystery to her. (She also, curiously, does not tend to ask much for explanations or instruction, either in the store or later; she tends to put things together for herself, for better and worse.) Nevertheless, she makes a great effort at understanding, especially the human world; she's determined to be an ideal companion to the child she's matched with -- certain that her time will come.
       Some children do take an interest in Klara, notably Josie, a pale and thin girl Klara estimates to be fourteen or so. When the girl first engages with Klara -- through the window-barrier, rather than actually in person -- she tells her that just driving by the day before: "I saw you, and I thought that's her, the AF I've been looking for !" Despite this, Josie and her mother don't immediately purchase her -- but Klara takes Josie's plea: "You won't go away, right ?" to heart, and she is still available when Josie and her mother finally come to the store to possibly select an AF.
       Josie's mother wonders whether a more advanced B3 might not be better, but Josie has her heart set on Klara and the mother lets herself be talked into it -- though not before testing Klara's abilities, of observation and, somewhat creepily, of mimicry, having Klara imitate Josie's slightly shuffling gait.
       Klara takes and adapts to her new home and position relatively well. The home she finds herself in is an isolated one, with only one other house nearby. Josie's parents are separated, and Josie lives alone with her mother and protective housekeeper Melania, who is no great fan of the technological marvel that's brought into the house. Josie is also sickly, suffering from an unidentified but serious illness -- but it's not (just) that which keeps her at home: apparently it is common for children her age to study from home, tutored on their oblongs -- apparently tablet-like devices.
       Klara and the Sun is set in a near-future, the world -- as glimpsed through Klara's (equivalent of) eyes -- still mostly closely resembling our own, but with some distinct technological advances. As we also learn, there has been some structural upheaval to society, an economic-technological transformation that has left many people -- even talented engineers, like Josie's father -- outside the new mainstream. (This has also led to some resentment of the AFs -- revealed in one confrontation-scene on a rare occasion that Klara is taken back into the urban environment, when someone complains: "First they take the jobs. Then they take the seats at the theater ?")
       The most ominous novelty in this brave new world is the possibility of genetic enhancement: we learn that Josie is among the many children who have been 'lifted', as the creepy euphemism has it. The procedure is still a risky one -- Josie's illness seems to be due to it, and we learn that Josie had a sister, Sal, who also suffered from a debilitating illness that killed her due to it -- but the leg-up that it gives to children, enhancing their potential, is apparently so great that parents are willing to risk it -- but it also further separates societies into yet another form of haves and have-nots. Among Josie's mother's issues is the guilt she continues to be racked by: did she do the right thing in having Josie 'lifted' ?
       One reason AFs are popular is because they are meant to help combat children's loneliness, to act as the companions children otherwise lack. Josie certainly lives an isolated life -- though that seems in part due also to the fact that they live out in the middle of near-nowhere. But school is apparently no longer the usual gathering place for kids -- they learn on their oblongs, alone -- and beyond AFs, parents try to organize 'interaction meetings', social gatherings for kids who otherwise have little occasion to get together. (Early on in the story there is such an interaction meeting at Josie's home, bringing together a whole group of lifted kids; whatever else the genetic enhancement does for them, it doesn't do much for their personalities.)
       Loneliness is a major theme in the novel, with Klara seeing it as a major part of her duty to try to alleviate Josie's. Observant as she is, she notes -- after having lived and interacted with humans for a considerable time -- "Perhaps all humans are lonely. At least potentially". More than potentially, Ishiguro suggests: an almost overwhelming sense of loneliness pervades the story, beginning with Klara's situation at the beginning of the book, when she is still in the store: while she does not feel it as such, what amounts to her isolation very much mirrors human loneliness, a condition that she then identifies in many around her, not least Josie and Josie's mother (and, indeed, that Ishiguro seems to suggests is part of the human condition).
       Josie herself does, in fact, have one close, age-appropriate friendship all the while -- the boy next door, Rick -- and the devoted Rick plays an important part in her life. His mother, however, chose not to have him lifted -- severely limiting his future possibilities, especially as far as education goes, despite the fact that he is obviously a very gifted child. Rick and his mother also live in relative isolation -- theirs is the only other house in the vicinity -- and Josie cuts to the quick of this world they are all living in in pointing out to Rick:
     'But doesn't your mom mind not having friends ?'
     'She has friends. That Mrs Rivers comes all the time. And she's friends with your mum, isn't she ?'
     'That's not really what I mean. Anyone can have one or two individual friends. But your mom, she doesn't have society. My mom doesn't have so many friends either. But she does have society.'
       Josie, too, at the start of the story only has an individual friend -- Rick -- and Klara is brought into the household as a supplemental companion -- she is literally an: 'Artificial Friend'. (The 'friends' that come over for the 'interaction meeting' hardly qualify as such; perceptively, Klara diagnoses: "They have rough ways, but they may not be so unkind. They fear loneliness and that's why they behave as they do".) One of the novel's big questions is whether Josie will ever have, or be able to have 'society', too: whether she will become, in some form, part of her mother's world, and the world her mother so desperately wants for her, or remain, like Rick and his mother -- or, worse, in death --, essentially out-cast. For much of the novel, her sickly state prevents her from even possibly really taking part, delaying any decision (or reckoning).
       If loneliness is one major theme of the novel, another is faith. Klara is solar-powered, and she literally thirsts for and basks in the sun; she comes to see, already in the store, the Sun as the source not merely of energy but what amounts to goodness in its largest sense; she essentially deifies and worships the Sun. Seeing also what the Sun gives her, she sees in it (or him, as she considers it) the potential to heal Josie; she turns to the Sun to try to help the sickly girl. She even comes to believe she can address the Sun, and conceives a way, by way of making an offering to him, of helping Josie -- an ultimately far-fetched plan that, somewhat too conveniently, she can put in motion, at potentially great cost to herself.
       Klara's belief in the powers, healing and otherwise, of the Sun are absolute, and her convincing herself of this is presented much like human belief in religion -- true (and obviously deluded) faith, rather than anything in any way rational or founded in facts. Strikingly, Klara is not the only one to show blind faith: at various points she enlists Rick as well as Josie's father to help her, and they do so, almost no questions asked. It's a sign of everyone's desperation: they all want to help Josie, but do not know how; they'll grasp at any straws. (So also Josie's mother -- who grasps at quite a few out-there straws, some involving Klara.) The denouement then, the decisive scene where everything then changes, is also strikingly essentially religious -- a resolution more or less out of the blue, though with Ishiguro strongly implying that the absolute faith the characters, including Klara, showed, was decisive.
       Ishiguro unfolds his story in a series of neat feints. From the reader's worry, early one, that Klara won't find a buyer, he advances the story in a series of steps where things could go different ways. The central question throughout, of course, is whether Josie is doomed, or whether she will be cured. Ishiguro nicely adds to the tension by making clear that Josie's mother is contemplating a Plan B, in case Josie doesn't make it, and so throughout there's the question of which way things will go. (We also learn a little bit more about Josie's sister's fate, with Mr Capaldi, the man helping Josie's mother with this undertaking, reässuring her that this time things would go much better: "We've come a long, long way since then". (He also reminds her: "You have to keep faith", but that's something these characters are not in short supply of -- though Josie's mother is, indeed, the one who most often expresses doubt(s)).)
       Klara and the Sun is (well-)driven by its narrator. Klara has limitations, especially in understanding, but she is observant and thoughtful; she also has a real personality. Josie's mother at one point envies her for having no feelings, but Klara does not see it that way:
I believe I have many feelings. The more I observe, the more feelings become available to me.
       Yet Ishiguro gives her a different way of feeling: where readers will feel an almost mournful loneliness on her behalf on occasions, Klara seems content with her situation. There are some nice touches, where he subtly reminds that Klara is (just) a machine, as in a quiet moment where she stands by the refrigerator -- a favored spot -- "listening to its comforting sounds". Striking, however, is also how the human connection remains always slightly strained; Klara is always another -- and one who understands and accepts her place. Melania Housekeeper is extreme in her reaction, of treating her simply like a machine, but even Josie and her mother often also do. Klara has a role to play, but she also is aware that she must often step -- and, specifically, look -- aside. Still, there's an odd feel to Josie's relationship with Klara, an honest enthusiasm on the side of the girl that's tempered by what seems to be her sense that Klara is an appliance who serves a specific purpose for her, and can be ignored beyond that. If Klara is clearly honestly devoted to Josie, Josie -- as excited as she is about her companion -- never really seems to make a loving connection to Klara; Klara can conclude: "It was the best home for me. And Josie was the best teenager" -- but the relationship itself stands apart from those two claims. Indeed, it's notable that, elsewhere in the novel, the mentions and glimpses of other AFs tend not to be nearly as positive; the successful pairing of AF and child apparently more difficult than expected. (As Klara is ominously told about her former B3 store-mate: "Things didn't go as well for Rosa as they did for you".)
       Ishiguro seems to suggest -- insist, even -- the AI-human differences are, indeed, too great to bridge; so also he presents public sentiment as having turned against AFs by the end: "there's growing and widespread concern about AFs right now. people saying how you've become too clever", the creepy Mr Capaldi tells Klara.
       For much of the novel, in different way, Ishiguro toys with Klara becoming, essentially, 'human'. The way she presents herself to readers, she in many ways does come across as human -- yet he never lets go of some fundamental differences; her otherness is also always evident. And in his conclusion, Ishiguro clearly comes down on one side of the big question. It may also be hard for some readers to accept that Klara seems satisfied with her ultimate lot -- feeling, for her, that overwhelming, aching human loneliness that she seems oblivious to -- but then that also hammers home Ishiguro's point: she is other, and she is 'happy', to the extent that she feels happiness, with her lot.
       Neatly developed, Klara and the Sun is agreeably unsettling. Ishiguro plays quite expertly with expectations, slow and careful in what he reveals -- aided by the use of narrator who is limited in perception and understanding. He captures the parent-child dynamic well, with both Josie and Rick's mothers (fathers being notably absent here), with parents wanting the best for their children yet uncertain of what that best might involve -- and the cost of providing it. The relationship between Rick and Josie, a natural childhood one, also develops and unfolds in neat parallel to that between Josie and Klara -- though here too the narrative comes up against some of the limitations of Klara's self-awareness; we see her react to those in Josie's household, but get too little sense of their reactions and feelings towards the machine.
       Klara's voice, the teenage protagonist at the heart of the novel, and the parent-child issues addressed, lend the novel something of a YA-feel. So, too , some of the twists -- notably Klara's unlikely and very convenient means of doing something she believes might aid Josie (with help from Josie's father) -- feel a bit too simple for an adult novel, but otherwise the novel's approach works quite well. Certainly, it is an engaging story, and one that is surprisingly suspenseful, with Ishiguro's dangling of possible twists very well done.
       A moving novel, Klara and the Sun effectively addresses quite a variety of big issues. If Ishiguro does not see and work these through to the extent a hard science-fiction novel might, there's something to be said for his much more open-ended approach. Only the fall-back on faith seems a bit too easy of an out and explanation of too much here -- and his embrace of the true-human (it's what's inside, the human heart, that matters, above else, he seems to suggest) that feels a bit too easily taken (on faith ?).

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 March 2021

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Klara and the Sun: Reviews: Kazuo Ishiguro: Other books by Kazuo Ishiguro under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Japan in 1954 and moved to Great Britain when he was five. He won the Booker Prize for his novel The Remains of the Day, has received an OBE, and was named Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In 2017, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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© 2021-2022 the complete review

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