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Review: 'Klara and the Sun' rich with ambiguity about good and evil, and human nature

Klara and the Sun

KLARA AND THE SUN. By Kazuo Ishiguro. Knopf. 303 pages. $28.

“Klara and the Sun” is Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Ishiguro asks the question that troubles all his fiction in one form or another: “Can stable, free nations really be built on foundations of willful amnesia and frustrated justice?”

At all levels — from the state to the family unit to each member in it — Ishiguro builds his world on a substratum of willed forgetfulness.

“Klara and the Sun” exists in the aftermath of a great, unexplained cultural change. Like his iconic butler in “The Remains of the Day,” the human characters in “Klara and the Sun” live out their lives automatically, alternately facing and forgetting what they lost or gave up. Ishiguro is drawn to stories of breakdown without repair. In his world, it’s always already too late, until it’s not.

“Klara and the Sun” opens with a scene of eerie normality. A modulated voice speaks to us, precise and scrupulous. She is Klara, who begins the novel as a piece of merchandise in a store, trying to sell herself. She is an AF (Artificial Friend), newly manufactured and still gathering data. But already the store manager comments on her inquisitiveness.

When she’s lucky enough to be showcased in the store window, Klara soaks up the passing street scene. Sometimes the sun shines its (his?) full face on her, and Klara is ecstatic. But the world outside the window gives hints of what might be ahead for Klara.

A beggar and his dog suffer jeers on the corner of the planet where they rest, but their story has a happy ending. Klara also sees a capsule preview of how her post-store life might go sour: a rejected AF walks several feet behind an oblivious human mate. Klara is not deterred. Her mission is to complete her function as an artificial friend, and she does.

In one sense, Ishiguro’s story is as simple as that: one being dedicates her life to another, and she is faithful to her promise. She was born — OK, programmed — to love and serve, and she never wavers.

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“Klara and the Sun” asks profound questions about what it means to be human, about what our boundaries and limitations are, as well as what our peak achievements might be. How inclusive or exclusive need our definition of humankind be? In Klara, we see a mass-produced version of ourselves, supposedly without the defect of emotion. Yet this lab rat is the most steady character in the novel and the one who sees through all the human masquerade.

Klara is purchased/chosen by Josie, a 14-year-old girl with a limp. The household is small: Josie, her mother Chrissie, and Melania Housekeeper, an artificial maid. Right away, it’s obvious that Josie and the mother live in a house of secrets. Josie isn’t well, but her illness is a mystery. Klara learns early on to listen for “danger topics.”

For much of the novel, she is our only access. There are so many words that can’t be spoken. Gradually, as she listens and her data gathering skills improve, Klara learns that Josie and her now-dead sister, Sal, have been “lifted,” along with other children whose parents want to give them an edge. We never learn the details, but we do know that lifting is a risky medical procedure, probably involving gene editing. Sal didn’t survive, and it looks like Josie might not make it.

The “lifted” kids study alone on their “oblongs” (some kind of all-purpose machine) and meet in groups for “interactions.” The only unlifted kid in the novel is Ricky, Josie’s neighbor, best friend and love interest. They plan to figure out a way to live out their lives together. While the children speak openly about being lifted, their parents are guarded about the risks and trade-offs.

Ishiguro doesn’t load his novel with villains, just with ambiguity about where the burden of good and evil rests. He sets up a series of antagonistic pairs, one natural and the other connected to artifice. So we have a pair of mothers: Chrissie, Josie’s desperate mother, and Helen, Ricky’s pragmatic mother. Throughout the novel, Chrissie steps up measures to reproduce some portion of Josie, even if it involves mechanical reincarnation. Helen doesn’t mess with Ricky’s health, but her decisions isolate him. Paul, Josie’s father, is a good scientist, who stands in contrast to Mr. Capaldi, who is toying dangerously with Josie.

Near the end of the novel, the bad scientist, Mr. Capaldi, makes a big speech, addressed to Chrissie: “The trouble is Chrissie... We’re both sentimental. We can’t help it. Our generation still carry the old feelings. A part of us refuses to let go. The part that wants to keep believing there’s something unreachable in each of us. Something that’s unique and won’t translate. But there’s nothing like that, we know that now.”

Ishiguro’s wonderful novel deals in shadow and light, but it’s Klara who triumphs and the light that wins.

Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.

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