Klara is a robot who has been designed to have empathy so that she can be an Artificial Friend to a child. She is solar powered, so she has a key relationship with the Sun. We first meet her in the store, where she observes the world from the shop window. Will she be chosen or left on the shelf? And if she becomes a pet, will she be 'just for Christmas'?
Ishiguro takes us right into the mind of an android. This is a brilliant achievement. We even perceive the world through Klara's pattern recognition software, which sometimes resolves the world into cubist paintings, all disconnected shapes which sometimes fuse into a more rounded portrait than a conventional perception. Sometimes Klara doesn't really see as seamlessly as a human but often she is more perceptive than I am. But there is innocence as well: Klara doesn't understand some of what she sees and some misunderstandings lead to superstitious beliefs, for example about how she can influence the magic of the Sun. This aspect of the book is breathtakingly well written.
For example: "The sky from the bedroom rear window was ... capable of surprising variations. Sometimes it wasd the color of the lemons in the fruit bowl, then could turn to the gray of the slate chopping-boards. When Josie wasn't well, it could turn the color of her vomit or her pale feces, or even develop streaks of blood. Sometimes the sky would become divided into a series of squares, each one a different shade of purple to its neighbor." (Part Two, p 52) Klara's perceptual system often divides the seen environment into overlapping squares. More importantly, this passage shows that Klara's perceptions are influenced by how healthy her owner is: I think this is Ishiguro saying something powerful and important about how emotion colours our perceptions and influences our rationality.
It also means that Ishiguro can adopt a 'Man from Mars' approach to observing the world and in particular human social interactions. For example:
- "She ... held Josie in an embrace that seemed to go on and on, until the Mother was obliged to introduce a rocking motion to disguise how long it was lasting." (Part Two, p 92)
- "I saw more insects hovering before me in the air, nervously exchanging positions, but unwilling to abandon their friendly clusters." (Part Three, p 156 - 157)
Even the way she talks is Klara-like, although it has to be said that most of the characters speak in quite well-composed segments of dialogue, though it is often difficult for Klara (and the reader) to recreate the thoughts that lead to the dialogue. Sometimes, therefore, the dialogue sounds a little stilted. And the humans trust Klara to an alarming degree: Rick and the Father both help Klara accomplish her spiritual quest without ever knowing what she wants, just because they believe in a robot. I found this difficult to swallow.
The way that Ishiguro drips clues into the story, so that the reader has to piece together what is happening, is fantastic. We learn quite quickly that Rick has not been 'lifted' but it is only much later in the book that we understand what this means.
The science fiction element of this novel reminded me strongly of Ishiguro's masterpiece: Never Let Me Go. But the spiritual side was very reminiscent of his The Buried Giant. There are many layers of mystery in Klara's quest which reminded me of Gilgamesh.
Some moments of magic:
- "My cello-playing, even at its glorious best, sounded like Dracula's grandmother." (Part Two, p51)
- "What was becoming clear to me was the extent to which humans, in their wish to escape loneliness, made maneuvers that were very complex and hard to fathom." (Part Three, p 113)
- "It became normal for me to remain during Rick's visits, even though he sometimes looked towards me with go-away eyes" (Part Three, p 117)
- "Not only was her voice loud, it was as if it had been folded over onto itself, so that two versions of her voice were being sounded together, pitched fractionally apart." (Part Three, p 179)
- "Mr Capaldi believed that there was nothing special inside Josie that couldn't be continued. He told the Mother he'd searched and searched and found nothing like that. But I believe now he was searching in the wrong place. There was something very special, but it wasn't inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her." (Part Six, p 306)
A beautifully written book by a master. Well, he has won a Nobel prize for Literature.
I am a little bemused by the use of American spellings. The book may be set in USA, but that is not clear. Perhaps the author uses American orthography. But my copy of the book was published in London, UK in 2021.
Also by Ishiguro and reviewed on this blog:
Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in 2017. Other Nobel Laureates reviewed in this blog include:
- Patrick Modiano (2014)
- Alice Munro (2013)
- Herta Muller (2009)
- Doris Lessing (2007)
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1992)
- Saul Bellow (1976)
- Heinrich Boll (1972)
- Samuel Beckett (1969)
- John Steinbeck (1962)
- Albert Camus (1957)
- William Faulkner (1949)
- Andre Gide (1947)
- Hermann Hesse (1946)
- Thomas Mann (1929)