A House with Many Rooms
Book review by Jude Joseph Lovell
Throughout his distinguished career, much has been made of the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro’s “mixed” heritage—the fact that he was raised in England by his Japanese parents. Since his novels tend to raise questions that strike to the core of humanity—who we really are, and what we ultimately want—there is a tendency among admirers of Ishiguro’s work to consider him perhaps more qualified to address these questions than others owing to this unique background.
But as early as the 1980s, when he was first gaining international renown, Ishiguro questioned whether his own story made him particularly unique. “People are not two-thirds one thing and the remainder something else,” he told BOMB magazine in 1989. “Temperament, personality, or outlook don’t quite divide like that. You end up a funny, homogenous mixture.”
He’s right. Anyone who was raised by more than one individual can lay claim to a grab-bag of varying influences. And while Ishiguro’s dual-citizenship, in a sense, may have broadened his perspective on the world, his subsequent work as a novelist and occasional short-fiction writer points more to his own unique vision and skill as an artist.
Ishiguro, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017, has long been known as an adventurous writer, never content to stay in one place. But his strongest work tends to return to that subject of who we really are. The Remains of the Day (1989), his most famous novel, concerns a tightly-wound English butler with a tumultuous interior life, so effectively raised to inhabit a role of strict servitude that he can scarcely comprehend his own emotions. Never Let Me Go (2005), a harrowing novel, concerns young students at an English boarding school who come to discover that they are actually clones being harvested for their organs.
Both of these novels, which were adapted into acclaimed films, deftly set their characters up to question their very purpose. As do our own lives, at one point or another.
Now, Ishiguro has produced a startling new novel called Klara and the Sun – his first since winning the Nobel. Because it concerns technology that seems slightly ahead of us, it will draw comparisons to Never Let Me Go, with which it shares a subtle but taut atmosphere. But the former was set in the ’80s and ’90s in the English countryside, while the new novel is set in the near future in an unnamed region. And while it is compact and fast-moving, its vision and implications reach farther and wider than the earlier book.
Klara is a humanoid “Artificial Friend” or “AF” who introduces herself to us in the opening pages from within a sterile retail environment. Think of an Apple store. Although she is a “B2” series, already competing with more advanced “B3” models, she is commended by a figure she knows as “Manager” for her exceptional “observational abilities.” These qualities help her to eventually attract a buyer, Josie, a teenage girl with a life-threatening illness, who overcomes her stern mother’s reticence to bring Klara home as a long-term companion.
This AF indeed proves adept at piecing things together. She also happens to be solar-powered, and regards the Sun (capital “S”) as a god-like, life-giving figure. Believing that the Sun can provide “special help” that may improve Josie’s prospects, Klara passes days looking for opportunities to take advantage of the Sun’s benevolence. Her quest to enlist the Sun’s help drives much of the action. It also cleverly introduces an environmental subtext.
Simultaneously, Klara works to ingratiate herself with a small cache of humans whose inter-connection she finds both intriguing and confounding. Josie’s mother, who is single, is wary of Klara at the outset. But later she bonds with the AF, even, when Josie is too ill to travel, taking her alone on a trip to visit a waterfall that has special significance for the family. Klara discovers that part of the mother’s chilly demeanor is defensive, resulting from having already lost one older daughter to another unspecified illness and the breakup of her marriage.
Klara also comes to know Rick, a young neighbor, with whom Josie has had a special relationship since they were both small. The two of them have long-term plans for a future together, but these are complicated by Josie’s health and by the fact that neither of them have been “lifted”—a status the reader is left to grasp at initially, but is later revealed to be a reference to a procedure called “genetic editing.” This medical process affords young recipients a significant cognitive advantage over others who may compete with them for admission to top colleges, and later for jobs. Unfortunately for Josie and Rick, it’s accessible only to those who can pay for it.
Ishiguro skillfully sows small tidbits of information regarding both Josie and Rick’s families, their losses and their struggles, as this novel unfolds in a curious atmosphere of both beauty and dread. By the time Klara learns of a shocking contingency plan cooked up by Josie’s mother, her ex-husband, and an eclectic artist should the unthinkable occur, the artificial human is already taking steps in a dangerous scheme of her own to keep Josie alive.
Late in the story, Josie’s father abruptly asks Klara if she “believes in the human heart.” As Klara struggles to respond, he observes that the heart may be “a house with many rooms” where one never knows what the next will reveal. Even as Klara prepares to make her own sacrifice, this exchange confirms her awareness of “the extent to which humans, in their wish to escape loneliness, made maneuvers that were very complex and hard to follow.”
That’s the whole thing about us, isn’t it? Klara and the Sun is a rich and intricate novel, beautiful at times, confounding at others, but utterly fascinating when you sit back and ruminate on it. In that sense, while it is a story set in an unknowable future, it is also very much about the present.
Photo credit by Jude Joseph Lovell.
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.