NOTE: This review contains spoilers below the synopsis. For my spoiler-free review, please see my YouTube video.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel takes us to a world of the not-so-distant future, where AI and humans live side-by-side…literally. Klara, an artificial friend (“AF”), relates to us her journey of leaving a shop window for a home with Josie, her teenage adoptive human. Josie suffers from a mysterious illness, which frustrates her mother and leaves her with few close human friends, apart from her boyfriend Rick. As Klara acclimates to life with her new family, she peels back their history and secrets to discover the real reason for her presence in their lives.
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.
I SAID MAJOR. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED….
This novel covers a lot of ground—and I mean a lot. From the beginning, we’re made aware of the peculiar relationship which robots have with their humans; Klara is neither quite sister nor servant to Josie. She is, in other words, whatever the family wants her to be. Later on, we are introduced to the wider world of Josie and Klara, one where Josie’s father has been ousted from his job, presumably by automation, and is living in a kind of wild-west commune. Josie’s mother is no less troubled: terrified of losing her daughter, she is making plans to replace Josie with an AI, if Josie passes away. Klara, meanwhile, is determined to save Josie’s life by asking for the Sun’s help, as she is fully convinced that the Sun can heal Josie if someone does something for the Sun.
If you feel like you need to catch your breath, don’t worry. The novel is slowly paced, as is most of Ishiguro’s work. He does not do anything to shock you greatly in this book (except for a few f-bombs, which seemed bizarrely out-of-place in this old-fashioned-feeling world). In fact, I was really hoping for more from each of the above plot points.
The most tense scene came early on in the novel, when Klara was being bullied by some of Josie’s friends. The way Klara handled this scene, in her matter-of-fact-way, juxtaposed with her disappointment in Josie’s response, was absolutely brilliant. I was hoping Ishiguro would build on this and really get into the nitty-gritty of how androids and humans would interact in a less happy environment. However, he doesn’t go there, instead letting the scene dissolve and moving on to the next one.
The entire book gave me the feeling that there was more story to tell. I wanted to hear more about Josie’s father and the “fascists” and the effects of automation on the job industry. I wanted the horror of the “bereavement doll” subplot fully explored, not merely hinted at, especially since the AI part has some real-world precedent. I was fascinated by Klara’s worship of the Sun and wondered about its algorithmic origins. I thought there was much more to say about Rick and his lack of genetic editing, which felt a bit like a continuation of themes from Never Let Me Go (and would’ve made a neat tie-in if further developed). Lastly, when Klara does something a bit rebellious, there was so much potential for her to escalate that behavior and walk us through her rationalization, but again, we only got to see a glimpse of this.
I enjoy a subtle novel, but this book offered a lot more without delivering on it.
One last comment. Klara concludes that humans have no souls, nothing that makes us special, only the impressions that we leave upon others. Thus, she realizes, she could never have been a suitable replacement for Josie, as Josie’s mother had intended. I wouldn’t necessarily expect more from a robot—although if she deifies the Sun, why should she not believe in souls?—but if this is the actual message of the book, it is awfully bleak and depressing. Indeed, it’d be hard to recommend this to anyone grappling with issues of death and the afterlife.
I rated this a solid 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. The first 2/3 of the book were nearly gripping, and it gave me much to think about. The last 1/3 was quite disappointing. I would give this a middle ranking out of the Ishiguro books I’ve read so far.