A female robot is recruited to help with a family going through a difficult time
Klara is an artificial friend (AF) that spends her days in a shop window, waiting for someone to buy her. She's a slightly older model, a B2, so she often feels anxious that she will be passed over in favour of the newer B3 models, just being unpacked from their boxes. Klara loves it when she is positioned at the front of the window and can catch the sun's rays, which recharge her batteries and makes her feel wonderful. In fact, she almost worships the Sun, giving him a male gender and an upper case title.
A 13-year-old girl named Josie repeatedly visits the store with her mother and talks to Klara. They are testing the waters to see if Klara would make a good AF. After much deliberation between mother and daughter (Josie's mother is always quite tense, her mind often preoccupied) they decide to take the machine home.
The novel is set in the near future and social divisions have become exacerbated. Josie has been “lifted”, genetically edited for superior intelligence, while her good friend and neigbour, Rick, hasn't. Effectively, they belong to different castes. This causes some fundamental friction within their friendship, and their mothers are at loggerheads on how to manage their aspirations. Added to this list of complications, Josie has some unidentified health problems, potentially life threatening.
Ostensibly this is a science-fiction novel, an exploration of a possible future where AI dominates, yet the character of Klara reads more like a Victorian servant. She is observant, there to meet people's needs and knowing when to hide herself away when delicate social situations require it. Besides her ability as a machine to feel human emotions – anxiety, fear, love – she also experiences naivety, believing in the omnipotent powers of the sun. She prays to “him” and is convinced a pollution sputtering building site contraption is the Sun's implacable enemy.
Kazuo Ishiguru is a supremely skilled storyteller. The novel unfolds with the precision of a Swiss clock, a tantalising suspense built into every page as we slowly learn about Josie's illness, its cause and the mother-daughter tensions that permeate. In many ways, Klara and the Sun is a middle-class drama, soaked in guilt, regret, and failed parental aspirations, observed calmly through the eyes of Klara, the astute yet naïve home help, much loved but ultimately dispensable.
Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguru. Published by Faber. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books