KLARA AND THE SUN
By Kazuo Ishiguro
Faber & Faber/Paperback/307 pages/$28.84/Available here
5 out of 5
Can the human heart be copied? "It might indeed be the hardest part... to learn," muses the unusual narrator of Klara And The Sun. "It might be like a house with many rooms."
Rooms within rooms within rooms. "But it must be limited," she goes on to reason, "there'll be an end to what there is to learn."
Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro's novel is, on one level, a simple story about a robot, a girl and the sun. Yet it is constructed so precisely and so artlessly that its simplicity is profoundly moving.
In a near-future America, Klara, an Artificial Friend (AF), waits in a department store for a human to take her home.
Klara is an unusually astute observer of the behaviour of others, whether the humans who pass on the street or the other AFs, who chatter about the homes they hope to have.
Being solar-powered, she regards the sun as an omnipotent deity. It gives her the energy she needs to function and the light by which to make her observations.
While on display in the window one day, she forms a bond with a sickly teenager, Josie, who begs her mother to purchase Klara as her companion.
As Josie's health worsens, Klara - who is programmed to achieve the best for her human at all costs - embarks on a quest to seek out the sun and bargain with him to save Josie.
Ishiguro is far from the first British literary luminary to assay artificial intelligence - his fellow Booker Prize winner Ian McEwan wrote about robots in Machines Like Me (2019).
But where McEwan's novel was unabashedly, almost ostentatiously cerebral, Ishiguro's philosophising about science and human nature is so simple a child could grasp it - and therein lies the beauty of Klara And The Sun.
Ishiguro has made a career out of unreliable narrators like Masuji Ono, the ageing painter of An Artist Of The Floating World (1986), or the butler Stevens in The Remains Of The Day (1989).
Klara is, in a way, an utterly reliable narrator. The novel is told through her eyes in the most literal sense and Ishiguro plays with the intriguing dimensions of what that might look like for an android.
If she is uncertain about what she is seeing - say, the emotions of the person she is looking at - her vision fractures in a fashion reminiscent of Cubist paintings, a multiplicity of boxes that highlight a sad eye here, an angry jaw there.
Yet there is a chasm, which she is oblivious to and the reader painfully aware, between what she sees and what is happening to the world.
In her, rational thought and child-like belief co-exist perfectly. Her abnegation might be dull in the hands of a less deft writer, but Ishiguro bestows on her a gentle purity that makes her impossible not to love.
Like his 2005 novel Never Let Me Go, which also examined humanity through the eyes of an artificial race - organ donor clones - created to serve it, Klara And The Sun is ostensibly science fiction.
It is set in a society where it is commonplace to buy a robot companion to stave off loneliness or to genetically edit children so they can get ahead in life. The use of AI in jobs has worsened, not erased, economic inequality. There is also a faint ecological slant - pollution is rampant - though none of this ever pushes to the forefront of the story.
Yet what it reminds me most of is not the AI classics of the sci-fi genre, but rather a story I loved when I was a child: The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams, in which a stuffed toy rabbit hopes its owner, a little boy, will love it so much, it becomes real.
Whether Klara can ever be a real girl is the question at the crux of the novel.
But the way she arrives at its answer is so tenderly, powerfully human-like that it breaks the heart - that unreachable part inside every person that is the hardest to learn.
If you like this, read: Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan (Random House, 2019, $17.66, available here). In an alternate 1980s Britain, a series of artificial humans - Adams and Eves - come on the market. The narrator purchases an Adam and becomes enmeshed in a love triangle with him.