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Here is the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, who, from her place in the store, watches carefully the behavior of those who come in to browse, and of those who pass on the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her. Klara and the Sun is a thrilling book that offers a look at our changing world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator, and one that explores the fundamental question: what does it mean to love?Amazon
Atmosphere / Writing Style
Set in China in the not too distant future, this book reads like a contemporary novel but it is so much more than that. There are lots of little bread crumbs dropped along the way that alert us early on that the setting is not “now.”
I’ll go into more detail in a moment regarding Klara as a character, but for this part of ASPECT, let me point out that this story is from the POV of an android and thus a lot of it is filtered through her perceptions and limited understanding. What this creates is almost two distinct stories… the one that Klara is experiencing and the one that we as readers are aware of. Of course, they overlap and there are moments when Klara knows more than we do, she is after all of this alternative world, but there are times when we know more than she does (such as how/why the sun sets). This almost constant juxtaposition is a teeter-totter of emotions because we feel so bad for Klara and her misunderstandings of situations while at the same time we are confused and at a loss regarding the very basics of the world that she inhabits. What does it mean when they talk about the children being “lifted” for example… we don’t get actually told this until close to the end, but Klara seems to either know it already or simply not care because it doesn’t affect her.
As I have noted previously both on this blog and in my podcast, speculative fiction can serve as a way for us to think about a current issue or problem by taking it to a logical and then almost illogical extreme. This book attempts to do this, but without the exposition normally found in books about the future. I’m not saying every book has a big info dump (although plenty do) but that usually the breadcrumbs are early and often so that we settle into our time and place rather quickly. That wasn’t the case with this book. I felt like I was still learning about the world halfway through never mind learning about the interpersonal relationships that were being carefully and slowly explained to Klara as the story went on.
This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, I rather enjoyed it, but casual readers might find it off-putting or frustrating to not really know the “why” behind lots of actions and character decisions.
The problem comes when we try to figure out what the point was. Is this a book about how we treat technology? Is it about the inequality of the educational system? Is this a city vs rural critique or a comment on the changing structures of the family unit? Maybe it is about the need for a society of one’s peers… or maybe we are being asked to think of what makes someone human vs synthetic… It could have been any of these things had any one of them been fleshed out, but unfortunately… it was really none of those. It was a story of an android on a (misguided?) quest.
Klara is, as said above, an android. Yet she still grows and changes as the story progresses. She learns, but more importantly, she is a mirror by which the other characters are shown and it is the other characters who go through most of the growth and change albeit on a mostly superficial level (i.e. teenagers grow up and their relationship changes). Klara is the most sympathetic character because we know her motivations are pure. She wants nothing more than to help and to learn. When others mistreat her or ignore her, we hurt for her even though Klara herself isn’t hurt or sad.
The story centers around Klara and her quest. Of course, this is a spoiler-free review, so I won’t give anything away but I will say that watching Klara attempt to achieve her goals was emotional and the ending, in particular, gave me “all the feels” as the kids say. And yet…
There were a few side plots of mixed levels of interest. Perhaps they were meant to be metaphorical and deep… but I found them frustrating departures from Klara and her aims.
Hmmm. Sort of. I did want to know what was going to happen to Klara and Josie, but I still have so many unanswered questions about the world they inhabit that I feel cheated out of a fuller story. Maybe that is the point? Maybe Ishiguro is showing us the frustration of only having fragments of stories, part of people’s experiences, etc, and reminding us that there is always more that we don’t know. Maybe.
Or maybe I am just ruined by contemporary lit that is easier to parse. I honestly don’t understand what happened to a few of the characters and without knowing their full stories or even the context of their world, it is hard to care about what befell them.
Why THIS book?
Random grab off the “New and Now” shelf at the library. Speculative fiction about a solar-powered robot? Written by Nobel Prize winner? Sure! …
Would I recommend it?
Actually. No. Or rather… maybe only to a select few. If you want to dig for metaphor and look for moral messages about … but, again, I can’t even really see what the point was. This is not a book about anything even if it tries to get there. Yes, there is an ethical question raised at one point but it is so quickly rendered moot, that no one really has to wrestle with it… or rather, Klara doesn’t wrestle with it, Josie doesn’t wrestle with it, and the parents who do are so ancillary that the reader doesn’t feel compelled to give it much more thought past “/shudder, yikes!” before moving on.
It is an interesting premise and there are parts that are moving… it certainly wasn’t a waste of my time… but I was glad to be able to move on to something else.
One last note that is still not a spoiler but involves the ending: There is a way to read this ending that is satisfying almost happy based on some theories on the internet, theories I do not have the energy to weigh in on as I don’t want to do another close read of the book… there is also a way to read the ending as pretty bleak and sad. If you like ambiguous endings, then please read and let me know what you thought. If, however, you like to know what happened, who is who and don’t relish getting bummed out… probably best to skip.
*** ASPECT Method (I created this, I used it, feel free to do the same.)
A Atmosphere: How did it make me feel? What was the world like? This might include the overall tone.
S Style: What was the writing style like? Simplistic or sophisticated? Clunky or beautiful?
P Plot/Pace: Was it engaging? Were there holes? Did it feel too rushed or too long?
E Enjoyment: Was it a chore to finish or compelling enough that I picked it over other fun activities?
C Characters: Were they believable, sympathetic, interesting?
T This? Why did I read *This* book?