Ishiguro's first novel since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature is moving, filled with dystopian tension and beautifully crafted.
For readers and publishers both, the anticipation for this novel, Ishiguro’s first since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, has been immense. Thankfully, it lives up to every ounce of hype, and is bursting with the same deft lyricism and subtle stylistic brilliance that has become a signature of Ishiguro’s work. Ishiguro is arguably at his best in his social novels. A Pale View of Hills was an astonishing debut, an exploration of the tortuous relationship between a mother and daughter, divided by the cultural gulf separating England and Japan, a setting that consciously echoes the division within Ishiguro’s own life and cultural identity. For an author of English-Japanese heritage, you’d expect that this teetering between two identities would be a recurring theme throughout his oeuvre. Fellow Nobel Laureates Orhan Pamuk and Doris Lessing were never able to break away from the sense of belonging to two cultures. As if refusing to be pigeon-holed by it, Ishiguro never really returned to the theme, and tended to root his work firmly either in Japanese or English history.
An Artist of the Floating World, his most overtly Japanese novel, is a haunting and harrowing account of one Japanese man’s attempt to reconcile his allegiances with a modern Japan that has deliberately eschewed his imperialism and left him, in his dotage, culturally alienated from everything he has known. His greatest social novel, The Remains of the Day, needs little introduction here, save to say that if you have not yet read it, you are missing out on arguably the finest English social novel of the last 70 years.
In his recent work, Ishiguro has been gently flirting with themes redolent of science fiction. Never Let Me Go was a masterful effort, weaving a dystopian and frighteningly believable English society based on cruelty and eugenics. His most recent novel , The Buried Giant, fuses Arthurian myth with elements of high fantasy, but the setting somewhat overwhelmes the narrative. It is still a wonderful novel, but was perhaps just a little too much of a departure from form to please the critics.
In Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro’s Eighth novel, the reader feels almost immediately that Ishiguro has found his perfect balance. Like Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro spends much of this novel exploring what it is exactly that makes us ‘human’. Klara is an AF – an Artificial Friend – androids bought by parents to provide companionship for their teenage children, who, for reasons that become clearer over the course of the book, are home-schooled by “screen professors” in the novel’s dystopian and hyper-tense version of America. Klara is given to Josie, a sensitive and scared young woman suffering from a terminal illness that has already claimed the life of her beloved sister.
Klara’s acquisition is something of a novelty for Josie’s family, and the real novelty for the reader is in Ishiguro’s wonderful descriptions of the different ways in which Klara sees the world. Her interpretations of the frailties and fears of her human hosts are reminiscent of a savant, but one who must negate aspects of her own emerging human curiosity to provide comfort and entertainment for her host. Fans of Spike Jonze’s brilliant 2013 film Her, in which a man falls in love with and AI designed specifically for his personality, may have some idea of what to expect here. This novel though is more subtle, and the underlying sense of menace of the dystopian backdrop hands a further ream of tension.
Anyone who has read Ishiguro will know that the main appeal of his novels is the gentle way in which he can weave an entire emotional framework for his characters. In The Remains of the Day, we become completely au fait with the inner workings of Stevens mind, despite him being possibly the most emotionally repressed character in modern British fiction. In Never Let Me Go, we grow to despise Kathy’s naiveté and bluntness, but understand completely the forces that have made her what she is. In Klara and the Sun, we are forced, with every turn of the page, to fall for Klara, to want her curiosity to be rewarded, and ultimately to achieve the humanity she tries so hard to understand. This novel is packed with feeling, but as ever with Ishiguro’s novels, much of it goes unsaid between the characters. It’s like watching a fireworks display that only you can see.
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