In a store, among bracelets and coffee cups and silver vases, Klara, an "AF," (that is, an Artificial Friend), is waiting for a particular child, despite Manager's caution: "It's for the customer to choose the AF, not the other way around." Watching and learning as she waits, "preparing herself to be as kind and helpful an AF as possible," she prizes her time in the window, where she can take in so much of the world — and of the Sun's "nourishment."
From "Let Me Go" to "The Buried Giant," Kazuo Ishiguro has imagined the future, and reimagined the past, in unsettling ways that invariably raise the key question: What does it mean to be human? The Nobel Prize winner's new novel, "Klara and the Sun," does this, too, in a straightforward fashion — by having Klara, an AF, tell the story, and tell it in such a sympathetic way that, when she's treated like a robot (or, worse, a machine) it's hard not to be offended on her behalf.
In the novel's uncertain future, children are sorted in a mysterious manner that limits the prospects of some but seems to hold certain perils for the others, the "lifted." When one of the latter, 14-year-old Josie, chooses Klara, it soon becomes apparent that Josie is suffering from a weakening, and worsening, malady. Her sister, it seems, died of the same sickness, and now her desperate mother fears that Josie might be dying, too.
Klara's whole story — her whole "life," in fact — is her tenure with Josie, and her devotion to her charge is absolute. So while The Mother prepares for her loss in her own weird way (subbing Klara for Josie — more "Stepford Wives" than "Pinocchio"), Klara earnestly sets about soliciting a cure from … the Sun. Because solar power supplies her energy, the Sun has assumed a godlike significance in Klara's worldview — and her acts of faith and sacrifice are not so different from some of our own.
Can an AF have a worldview? That's the question. One of the peculiar pleasures of the novel comes from Klara's reframing of the familiar — whether it's teenage angst, or the comforting sound of a refrigerator, or the notion of privacy as something that might be taken or even stolen (though never by the ever-thoughtful Klara). More curious is how the people she sees are sometimes "partitioned," her vision divided into "boxes" — a sort of pixelation that might be an AF version of Plato's cave allegory, Klara processing reality at one remove.
In the beginning, when she is new, her reality confined to the store, Klara says, "Still, there were other things we saw from the window — other kinds of emotions I didn't at first understand — of which I did eventually find some versions in myself, even if they were perhaps like the shadows made across the floor by the ceiling lamps after the grid went down."
Ellen Akins is the author of four novels and a story collection, "World Like a Knife." She lives in Wisconsin.
Klara and the Sun
By: Kazuo Ishiguro.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 303 pages, $27.95.
Event: In conversation with Yaa Gyasi, May 2. Loft Wordplay, in conjunction with Bay Area Book Festival; $50 includes access to all Wordplay events. Register at https://loft.org/festival/wordplay-registration.