Klara, the narrator of the new novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, isn’t human, but understanding humans is her mission. In Klara and the Sun, the reader follows her in that mission, in a world that seems like our own in a none too distant future. It’s a dazzling and deeply moving journey.
Ishiguro, who was born in Japan but has lived most of his life in England, has written seven previous novels, including the Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day, as well as short fiction, song lyrics and screenplays.
Klara and the Sun is his first novel since he received the Nobel Prize for literature in 2017. It underscores how well he deserved that prize, in its beautiful craft and prose and in its tender but unflinching sense of the human heart.
Ishiguro has often erased the lines between literary and genre fiction, drawing on science fiction and mystery in Never Let Me Go, for example, or fantasy and fable in The Buried Giant. There are ribbons of all of those genres in Klara and the Sun.
Klara is an AF, or Artificial Friend, a type of robot with a human appearance and a high degree of artificial intelligence, designed to serve as a companion to a child or teenager. The book begins when she is “new,” living in a store that sells AFs on a busy city street and learning to make sense of her little piece of the world.
Some things are programmed into her AI. She can estimate at a glance a person’s age and whether his suit jacket reveals “high rank” social status. She can judge whether the minute crinkles around a woman’s eyes indicate a smile or suspicion.
Klara has a deep reverence for the sun, which she regards as a deity. It might seem an odd belief to build into an android, but AFs are solar powered, so attention to the sun is a matter of survival for them — and, as Klara comes to believe, perhaps for some humans.
When it comes to things not in her code, Klara is programmed to observe and learn. When 14-year-old Josie and her mother come to the store, Klara notes the girl is pale and thin and walks with difficulty, but that she is also bright and adept at manipulating adults. Josie is a quick study, too — she notices how Klara feels about the sun and promises her they can watch the sun set together at her house.
Before long, Klara is Josie’s AF, living in a comfortable house far outside the city with those sunset views. Josie is delighted with her; it takes longer for Klara to figure out how to get along with the Mother, a tense woman who dashes off to work each morning, and gruff Melania Housekeeper. (Klara tends to label people according to their roles.) But Klara is determined to find harmony, because at the core of her programming is the task of keeping Josie happy and safe.
Just why would a kid need an AF, anyway? It seems lots of them do. Josie is far from the only child in this world who is homeschooled and largely isolated from the outside. She does have one real friend, a boy her age named Ricky who lives up the hill with his mother. They are tightly bonded, but there is a sharp difference between them: Josie is “lifted,” Ricky is not. What that term means, and what it has to do with Josie’s fragile physical health, emerges obliquely and then becomes crucial.
Klara’s quiet life with Josie is upended by a trip to the city. It has several purposes: Josie will see her father (her parents are divorced) and visit an artist who is creating a portrait of her, while Ricky and his mother will come along to meet a man who might be able to change Ricky’s future.
The trip is a rush of revelations about all of those characters, one that Klara finds almost overwhelming. Ishiguro always keeps us inside Klara’s head, mostly through his skillful use of her narrative voice, which is formal and almost childlike in its innocence.
We also sometimes see through her eyes, which seem to have a technical glitch that causes her vision to break up into something between pixelation and cubism when she’s under stress, as in one uneasy conversation: “She drank coffee, all the time looking at me, till I found the Mother’s face filled six boxes by itself, her narrowed eyes recurring in three of them, each time at a different angle.”
What Klara finds out in the city about Josie and her family will lead to choices that might be difficult for a human. The Father asks her, “Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t mean simply the organ, obviously. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you think there is such a thing? Something that makes each of us special and individual?”
To Klara, programmed for loyalty and self-sacrifice, the answer is clear. For some of the humans around her, it might be an open question.
The quietly stunning finale of Klara’s story made me feel a little like one of the first famous AFs, the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, when he said, “Now I know I have a heart, because it’s breaking.”
Klara and the Sun
By Kazuo Ishiguro
Knopf, 320 pages, $28