Part of Kazuo Ishiguro’s genius lies in his ability to create fresh alternative realities in every new book that dramatize, and deepen, emotions anyone can recognize: loneliness, uncertainty, regret. He whisks us out of the world we know and into a parallel realm—a boarding school for clones, an English country house in the 1930s—so we can observe, as through a microscope, the terror of being abandoned or the recognition that one has given one’s life to an illusion. In other hands this is genre fiction—the Arthurian quest, a detective story, science fiction; Ishiguro turns the works into probes as heartbreaking as Lear on the heath.
Klara and the Sun, his latest, is another fearless experiment. Its narrator, Klara, is a robot who happens, as the novel begins, to be sitting in a store in what sounds like New York City, waiting to be claimed by a customer. When she becomes part of a family, she has to puzzle out the dynamics of a world in which everyone is haunted by dimly sensed losses or fears. Like many an Ishiguro protagonist, Klara is at once preternaturally observant and constantly in the dark. She longs to be of service, like Stevens the butler in The Remains of the Day,but she can never make out the larger picture. In the displacing language that Ishiguro has made his own, both weird and strangely affecting, she says things such as “His switch of subject was highly unwelcome, but anxious not to lose his good will, I said nothing and waited.”