Review: Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara and the Sun [2021] – ★★★

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book, Klara is an AF (Artificial Friend) or a highly advanced girl-robot created to be a companion for a child. Together with another AF Rosa, Klara spends her time shifting positions inside the store in a hope that some child will eventually choose her and she will fulfil her destiny. Relying on and worshipping the Sun, Klara never misses an opportunity to catch its rays: “…the big thing, silently understood by us all, was the Sun and his nourishment” [Ishiguro, 2021: 5]. She is both puzzled by and interested in humans. Then comes Josie, a kind, but sick child. As Klara enters Josie’s world, she gets to know more about humans and life, including its sorrows and unpredictability.

Klara and the Sun is Toy Story (together with the toy’s existential crisis) meets Never Let Me Go by way of one robot’s obsession with the Sun. It is a bitter-sweet and curious book with one fascinating narrator and a theme of hope. However, it also has a very “thin” story with vague world-building, severely under-explored themes, and characters and topics “recycled” from the author’s Never Let Me Go. A torrent of never-ending and sometimes pointless dialogue in the story does little service to Ishiguro, an author who is capable of far greater depth, nuance, subtlety, emotion, evocativeness and intelligence, than he delivered in this latest trendy, crowd-pleasing, YA-like book.

The great thing about Klara and the Sun is its beginning, as well as its most unusual and fascinating narrator. It is interesting to get to know the world through the eyes of one synthetic girl who longs to know more of what is happening outside her shop. First, it is the shop which is Klara’s whole world, then Josie and her home. Throughout the novel, we are not entirely sure how the dystopian world presented by Ishiguro really works and are kept in a kind of suspense because many hints are dropped as to the exact functioning of everything, from the children’s education to the genes-modifying procedures. Klara is an excellent character. She is naïve, but intelligent, ignorant, but also highly perceptive and curious about the outside world. I admire Ishiguro’s skill of making a seemingly impossible situation feel very real in the story and fantastical concepts – close to our hearts. As in Never Let Me Go, his readers start relating to, and have feelings for, the seemingly “impossible” people and situations.

Japanese Edition

An interesting theme touched upon by Kazuo Ishiguro in his new book is looking at humanity from a completely objective, totally different perspective. Humans can only look and assess other human beings from the perspective of themselves and their brain limitations. Thus, Ishiguro does something different in his story by having a robot’s perspective. Klara also can only see the world from her own internal position and set of beliefs, and although everyone is trying their best in the story, they often find themselves at cross-purposes since, arguably, no character in the story has the full picture of the situation (and we, readers, least of all).

In some way, Klara is Stevens, an English butler, from Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Both Klara and Stevens are “fixed” in their roles and live to please others (their “masters”). Both are also perplexed and accommodating towards “outsiders”, while remaining loyal to their chosen people. Klara and Stevens both live in their secluded worlds with little hope for personal happiness. Instead, their whole worlds revolve around serving others, sacrificing themselves for their “masters”. Also, both Klara and Stevens can only assess the outside world from their own limited experience of it and knowledge. Ishiguro is definitely interested in this psychological situation, and it also reminds of the plot in Never Let Me Go, where certain children also have only limited knowledge about the outside world and were raised specifically to serve others, with their destinies already mapped out for them from their birth (as in the case of Klara).

One of the most unfortunate aspects of Klara and the Sun is that, unlike such literary masterpieces as The Remains of the Day, The Unconsoled or even Never Let Me Go, we hardly see in this new book Kazuo Ishiguro’s evocative prose, and the author hardly even attempts to explore interesting themes he hints at and briefly introduces, let alone answers any related questions. Such topics as the meaning of “a human heart”, “the heart of a robot”, “identity”, “morality vs. scientific progress” are alluded to in some dialogues  and can be clearly seen from Klara’s position and the unfolding situation, but Ishiguro never even attempts to make an even cursory exploration of them, limiting himself only to very brief comments on them through the children and their parents’ talk in the story.

Dutch Edition

The story in Klara and the Sun is also very “thin”. The narrative “runs dry” half-way through, entangled in day-to-day interactions of the characters: Josie, her mother and their neighbour, boy Rick. In fact, the whole story in the book can be written in under eight lines. Klara and the Sun could even have probably been better as a forty minutes’ play (especially given all the dialogue) or a short illustrated novella. As a sci-fi, the book is also woefully unremarkable. Kazuo Ishiguro intentionally leaves many things about his dystopian world and the functioning of Klara vague, and, apart from AF, oblongs and advanced polluting machines, there is hardly anything else concrete.

However, one of the most pitiful elements about Klara and the Sun is that first Ishiguro entices us with one fascinating robot and her unique perception of one intriguing world – only then to deliver his Never Let Me Go narrative, themes and characters. In the novel’s second half, we see a shift of perspective from Klara to humans – Josie and her friend Rick. Thus, what have started as one curious-robot-story is then “hijacked” by an ordinary story of friendship between two children, one of whom is severely ill. As in Never Let Me Go, in the new story, we have teenage love that nears tragedy, the possibility of dying young, and the same doomed Romeo and Juliet-type characters. As in that novel also, we have certain societal rules in Klara and the Sun which dictate that “something is to be done” to children, and children are divided into two categories: those who are “special” and those who are not. In Klara and the Sun, we even have the same “girl, girl, boy” group of young people who make big and special plans for themselves, but the outside world and its rules would probably prevent them from realising them. The character of Rick in the new novel also appears similar to the character of Tommy from Never Let Me Go, for example, regarding the sensitivity and attachment of both young men, etc.

Another unfortunate aspect of the book is its endlessly exasperating dialogues, instead of evocative descriptions or thought-provoking/beautiful prose. Sometimes it is even very hard to believe that certain lines are really spoken by children in the story, and some dialogues just do not have a natural flow to them. Any underlying emotion or nuance that Ishiguro is undoubtedly capable of showing was probably “swallowed up” by the torrent of dialogues in Klara and the Sun.

Klara and the Sun is probably Kazuo Ishiguro’s most commercial book that follows all kinds of recent trends, from YA to artificial intelligence and environmental concerns. The author entices us with a fascinating robot and a promise of silently-endured heartache, but, despite these sci-fi “pretences”, what we have inside is a very ordinary, “thin”, vague and predictable human story portrayed through “Never Let Me Go”-type characters and without any of the interesting themes explored. The interesting personality of Klara is simply insufficient for a good novel, and, instead of evocative writing, we also have overbearing dialogues, as Ishiguro seems incapable of sustaining the momentum in the book’s second half, falling back on very familiar to him tropes from his other books. In sum, Klara and the Sun may be a book that is a“ fast sell”, but it is also unlikely to amount to anything truly enduring.

39 thoughts on “Review: Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

    1. Thanks a lot! It is certainly a step down from Never Let Me Go, which I also liked very much, and it is very YA-ish with lots and lots of questions raised and unanswered. I kind of thought Ishiguro would do something more than an ideas jumble.

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  1. “Commercial”… exactly. I also found the dialogue rather unlikely. It makes me very sad, because I think he has written some absolutely masterful books (A Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World are my favorites of his). Personally I did like it more than Never Let Me Go, but I only gave it a 3, as well.

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    1. Thanks for the comment and agreeing about the dialogue! I am very glad someone else agrees with me in this respect because it is certainly daunting reviewing (negatively) work of such a beloved author, but I believe we should be separating the author and his reputation from his new books if we are to review them objectively.

      Ishiguro surprised me because I never thought he would EVER write something so “commercial” and “trendy”. Before this book, I really thought his style lay somewhere else and would never change. It is interesting that you mention his debut A Pale View of Hills. That’s the first book ever I reviewed on this blog, and I liked that it was so meditative and enigmatic, but, again, as in Klara, Ishiguro’s vagueness and refusal to connect all the dots for the reader can be frustrating.

      I absolutely loved his The Remains of the Day, but my personal favourite of Ishiguro is probably The Unconsoled, which I believe is a masterpiece, especially in a way it really taps into the human mind and its subconscious and unconscious processes to reveal certain truths.

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  2. Really interesting review. I’m halfway through Klara and the Sun at the moment. I’m withholding judgement for now (basically because I was underwhelmed by Never Let Me Go when I first read it, and it later became one of my favourite novels of all time, so I think Ishiguro has a way of working on you). But I agree that so far I wish the book had diverged further from NLMG, and that the best thing about it is Klara’s perspective. I don’t know how this develops in the rest of the novel, but it seems to me that a lot of fiction about AIs is obsessed with depicting AIs that are essentially emotionally human, but of advanced intelligence, and then showing how wrong it is for human society not to treat them like humans. I think Ishiguro is trying something different here with Klara’s emotionally skewed perspective that I find quite refreshing (though I agree that she does remind me of Stevens, which seems a bit unfortunate for Stevens!)

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    1. Thanks very much for this great comment! I will be very interested in your thoughts on Klara when you finish it. I agree, Klara is spectacular and her character (her sense of hope) is probably the only aspect of the novel that I really liked.

      As for being first overwhelmed, and then liking something, I think we can all accord much more meaning to any story than it is actually there and “enjoy” it that way, but there is got to be a limit to that. The problem in Klara is that Ishiguro has hardly given me anything substantial to think about or feel about in his story. A scenario whereby a kind robot meets a sick girl who has a lifelong friendship with another boy can be thought up in five minutes’ time – surely, we need something more than that, especially, from a Nobel laureate? Every thought-provoking theme that Ishiguro “picks up” in his novel is almost instantaneously “dropped” by him, including grief, identity and sacrifice. Are people really impressed by this apparently “new concept” by Ishiguro that when people grow up their feelings about others may change? or his other “completely new concept” that humans are all unique individuals? Is that Ishiguro’s definition of the “literary exploration of “the human heart””? I had no meaning or depth to consider in Klara, nor strange world to think about, not even one beautiful paragraph to ponder about, not one aspect to wrack my brain or feel overwhelmingly touched about. Mothers, Vance, Capaldi are all irrelevant and forgettable characters that go nowhere and I don’t remember a single character from Never Let Me Go that was “useless”.

      Or maybe even Ishiguro thinks that his readers should start their own bubble-drawing game to that effect and imagine all kinds of things that should be/are happening in Klara, as Rick and Josie do themselves in the story? 🙂 In my personal opinion, I don’t think it is the responsibility of the reader to do that amount of the author’s work for him 🙂

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      1. Hi, yeah I didn’t mean to suggest that nobody should judge an Ishiguro book as soon as they finish it! I just know that, personally, I sometimes get to like his novels more over time (I also initially struggled with Remains of the Day before coming to love it) so I won’t be reviewing this one any time soon. I do agree with some of the things you say about it, however, particularly regarding the clunky dialogue (which I have spotted in Ishiguro before, but not to this degree) and the limited characterisation in comparison to NLMG and indeed his other novels.

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  3. I don’t normally read dystopian but I thought this was rathe4 well done. I think the author writes a beautiful, elegant sentence which I appreciate. There were certain gaps I didn’t love, but in the whole I thought it was well done

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  4. Super interesting review, thank you. I do want to read the book, as it sounds intriguing, yet I’m not under illusions. I am a big fan of the concept of Never Let Me Go but not how it is actually written. I will not be buying this book but if the library gets it, I will have a read.

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    1. Thank you for reading! I think it is a very good idea to get it from a library. I have the book, but I don’t think I will ever want to re-read it (maybe only the interesting beginning when Klara is still in her shop).

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  5. What an excellent review! I can’t wait to read the book flaws and all. I love the comparison to the butler in The Remains of the Day and the parallels with Never Let Me Go that you have raised. I have enjoyed most of the books I have read by Ishiguro and admire his evocative prose. Too bad the book does not capture it. At least I hope it is an absorbing read. I didn’t enjoy The Buried Giant which was a laborious read.

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  6. Thanks for this thorough review, Diana. The only other book by this author that I’ve read is Never Let Me Go, so I think I’ll read some of his other works before I pick up Klara (although the point of view of an AI did appeal to me, so I thank you for letting us know that it doesn’t continue throughout the book).

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  7. Hmm, pointless dialogues, worldbuilding which remains vague at the best of times, recycled themes, it all sounds a huge disappointment. I know The Buried Giant evoked similar confusion, and though I enjoyed many aspects of that and found it haunting and impressionistic, I still remain unsure of its point. Still, I have Never Let Me Go to read first so Klara and her world will have to wait. 🙂 Thanks for this eviscerating review, however, I do like honest reviews!

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    1. Thank you for reading! My belief is that reviews should be only honest, and yes, Klara will probably be a different read for you if you haven’t yet read Never Let Me Go, so it may “help” if you read that one first!

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  8. I love your review, Diana! You are so thoroughly detailed, and so knowledgeable in your comparison of this book with other Ishiguro works. I, myself, have not read Never Let Me Go (!), but I was fascinated with your comparison of Klara to Stevens in Remains of the Day. I like how you remind us how objective Klara is capable of being. Still, you walk away with more appreciation than I felt for this book. I was ultimately bored and let down, when I had hoped for some unique insights from this beloved author.

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    1. Thank you very much! Your words mean a lot to me. I know it is wrong to compare Nobel Laureates, but, considering such Nobel Prize Winners for Literature as Jose Saramago (1922 – 2010) or Orhan Pamuk (1952-), my other thought is that I can’t imagine them writing something that trendy and if we are totally honest here – superficial, even though both of these authors also escaped into fantasy and science-fiction in their writings. Again, I very much agree with you. I know there is a YA and “simple writing” trends, but I can barely recognise Ishiguro in “Klara”, let alone find insights, depth or meaning.

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  9. Great review, Diana. I too love your parallel to Stevens in The Remains of the Day. I did think of the similarities to Never Let Me Go, but not to The Remains of the Day. Being an Ishiguro fan and having a big thing for AI, this had all the potential to become a favourite, but I pretty much agree with your assessment and gave it 3 1/2 stars.

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  10. I put off reading your comprehensive review until after I read the novel. If we remember that Klara is the narrator, our disappointed expectations regarding Ishiguro’s prose style are somehow mitigated. I think one of his points, at the very least, is to demonstrate that consciousness and love may have been an anomaly for this model version of the android, but it nevertheless arose in a non-human. Death was not the worst thing that could happen to either a human or a droid in a dystopia like the one Ishiguro presents.

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    1. Interesting thoughts, thanks a lot for sharing! Perhaps. I mean, that is precisely my biggest problem with Ishiguro. We can accord so much more meaning, psychology and philosophy to the book than is actually there because Ishiguro left plenty of “spaces” and “gaps” for the reader to do so. He did the “work” without doing it, essentially. We must do it for him, if I am making sense. We can draw all sorts of conclusions and that he meant this and that he meant that, as you say, debate what the book PROBABLY says on consciousness, love, death, etc. Well, as with his debut, we hardly have anything of substance here, but our own assumptions and conclusions. For that, surely, we must congratulate only ourselves? 🙂

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  11. I was very much welcoming this review, as I know it was at the top of your most anticipated books 2021 list. I read the first half and, after reading your review, am glad I stopped there. I agree the beginning was strong! I was enjoying it, but felt encumbered by the unnecessary dialogue.

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    1. Thank you for anticipating, reading and commenting! And, yes, definitely, a disappointing experience overall. Some people commented that probably the book would grow on readers over time, but I honestly don’t see how this could happen either.

      What I also don’t like is that it seems that Ishiguro is now “resting on his laurels” in this book, recycling themes and characters from his previous novels. He does not have anything to prove, of course, being a Nobel Laureate and having millions of fans, but I had this hope that he would go out of his comfort zone plot and character-wise and definitely would not follow recent commercial book trends, especially since, surely, HE does not have this “write-or-die” need to earn money with this recent book as so many other authors have.

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  12. I also noticed a lot of similarities between Klara and the Sun and Never Let Me Go, but it didn’t really bother me. In fact, I actually liked that he picked up some of the topics from the latter and looked at them from a slightly different angle in this book. In an interview with the guardian, he once confessed that he tends to write the same book over and over, so there’s definitely a purpose behind this. I can see why it bothered you tho.

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    1. Fair enough, yes. I guess Ishiguro is even known for following similar themes in all of his books, come to think that and as you say, but I guess, for me, in this particular case, merely “following previous themes” wasn’t quite enough and I wanted more “quality innovation”. I’ll put it “diplomatically” like that 🙂

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