The title of Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature makes explicit a metaphor that has run through much of his work. His characters, from Stevens the butler in The Remains of the Day (1989) to the children in Never Let Me Go (2005) and the old couple in The Buried Giant (2015), live in the sunshine. Theirs is a bright and happy world, or at least it is until their story gets going and they embark on the journey that will demonstrate that where there is sunshine there is also shade.
These are tragedies of learning. Ishiguro’s characters are not stupid or ignorant, but they are so dazzled by the sunny world they inhabit that they fail to notice truths that are only found in shadow. Stevens cannot see the betrayals of his so good, so noble employer (a Nazi sympathiser); the children cannot grasp that their happy childhood is a preparation for a short life as involuntary organ donors. Here, as Klara remarks of her fellow “Artificial Friend,” Rosa: “She could fail to notice so much, and even when I pointed something out to her, she’d still not see what was special or interesting about it” (p. 13). Alas for Klara, she is, like all of us, unaware that the same thing could be said of her. And learning the truth is never easy.
For Klara, an “Artificial Friend” who is literally powered by sunshine, the sun is all healing. Tellingly, early in the novel, she sees a homeless man begging in the street, our first hint perhaps that all is not socially progressive in this perfect world, though Klara fails to pick up on this. One day she sees the beggar and his dog collapsed in the street and is convinced they have died, but the next day they are both somewhat recovered. We don’t know what happened, the world as mediated through Klara’s eyes is lacking a lot of detail, but Klara is convinced that “a special kind of nourishment from the Sun had saved them” (p. 37), and this conviction that the sun can even raise the dead persists throughout the book.
As in many of his other novels, Ishiguro is rigorous in presenting the world through a limited viewpoint. We know no more than the narrator, at least until we start to make connections that the protagonist is ill-equipped to make. We see the world as it appears to Klara, and must accept it that way since Klara has no backstory to tell us. She comes into awareness in a shop, waiting to be bought, and all she knows of the world is what she glimpses through the window of the shop. There’s a city street lined by buildings, there are taxis and pedestrians that pass back and forth, and there is some sort of street repair machine, which she calls a “Cootings Machine”—presumably because of the manufacturer’s name painted on it—and which belches out black smoke that Klara sees as the enemy of her sacred sun.
This is the entire world as she knows it, so that is all that we have to start with. We do not know what the buildings house, where the pedestrians are going, or how this world operates. It is not quite our world, because there are intelligent and largely autonomous robots, but how else it differs we learn only slowly and partially. Ishiguro is not interested in worldbuilding; he is interested in character building, in emotion building. We learn far more about how Klara thinks other people feel than we ever do about the world those people inhabit. There are hints, no more: we get a suggestion that there is social unrest because robots are taking away employment from people, but all we see of this is a woman berating Klara outside a theatre because she imagines Klara is there to take away her seat in the audience—in the same way her kind have taken away jobs. More centrally, we learn that, through gene editing, most children are now “lifted.” What this entails, and how it benefits the children, remain mysteries; but we do know that those children who have not been lifted are now being denied access to schools. There is, in other words, a new form of class division opening up in society, but since all this remains resolutely in the background we have no real notion of how this division will play out, or indeed whether this is a coherent understanding of the world.
If the background is vague, however, what is in the foreground, the emotional impact of this upon the central characters, is totally convincing and very powerful. Klara is bought by Chrissie as a companion for her daughter, Josie, a child described by her mother as “[a] kid who loves life and believes everything can be fixed” (p. 105). We see in this that Josie and Klara are in some way the same, and twice in the early parts of the novel Chrissie gets Klara to imitate Josie’s movement and speech. There is, thus, a theme of identity running just below the surface of the novel that, to be honest, I feel could have been made more explicit, especially given that the scene in which, belatedly, the theme comes fully to the surface, provides the most affecting moment in the novel.
I am not sure, in the normal run of things, what function an Artificial Friend is supposed to fulfil, but we are aware almost from the start that Chrissie has something very specific in mind for Klara. Being lifted has its dangers: Josie’s older sister died as a result of her operation, and now Josie herself is very ill. Chrissie obviously has something in mind, then, but it is two thirds of the way through the novel before we discover, with a shock, what she is planning and what Klara’s role is meant to be. Klara, however, has plans of her own. She believes that Josie can be saved through the intervention of the sun, just as the sun has already raised the homeless man from the dead. But to achieve this, she needs help. This comes first from Josie’s closest friend, Rick, a neighbour who has not been lifted and who therefore is facing insuperable odds if he is to get into school—despite the fact that he is clearly a mechanical genius who is already making major strides in drone technology. (There is a very effective subplot in which Rick’s mother, Helen, needy and self-centred, tries to persuade an old flame to bend the rules and get Rick into a school, only to blow the chance.)
Klara’s second helper is Paul, Chrissie’s estranged husband, who is vehemently opposed to Chrissie’s plan. Klara has determined that she needs to sabotage the polluting Cootings Machine as a way of gaining favour from the sun. Paul, an unemployed technician (it is interesting that the only two significant male characters in this novel are both technicians cut adrift within this technologically advanced society), shows her how she might do this, by sacrificing some of her own vital fluids. Rick had helped Klara through straightforward love of Josie, but Paul’s motivation is much more obscure. It may be that Klara’s harebrained, semi-religious scheme was simply the only option left for saving Josie; but it may also be that by weakening Klara he was hoping to sabotage Chrissie’s plan. Ishiguro’s characterisation here is so sure-footed that the doubt cannot be resolved.
Everything, therefore, is steering us inexorably towards tragedy. There are so many mixed motives, hidden schemes, and misunderstandings threading their way through the novel that the only possible consequence of their exposure would seem to be things falling apart. But right at the end, Ishiguro bottles it. This is a story that, contrary to the logic of everything that has gone before, ends as it started, in sunshine. This is feeble, unearned, and fatally undermines the novel, as if his characters have gone through the tragedy of learning without actually learning of tragedy. In places, Klara and the Sun is as good, as moving, as enthralling as Ishiguro at his best, but the return to sunshine at the very end makes a nonsense of all that.