August 2021 | Books & Links
Klara and the Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro
Whilst I am not a fan of all of his books – I didn’t like ‘The Remains of the Day’ for instance – I have enjoyed some of Ishiguro’s books over the years, and so I put this one down on my reservations list at the library once the system was up and running again. The story follows Klara, an artificial friend designed for lonely children and teenagers, from her early days of sunbathing and people watching in a shop on a busy city street, waiting to be bought and taken home by a child, to her life in the months and years that follow, as a faithful, observant friend to a teenager with an unspecified chronic health condition which leaves her bed bound.
I really enjoyed the first two sections of the book, and felt myself pulled in to Klara’s strange world, but by the middle of the book I felt the story begins to fall apart. The thing that many reviews praise – Ishiguro’s ambiguity and “collaborative” open-ended world building – was the thing that frustrated me the most. There were too many gaps in the story for my liking, from the nature of Josie’s illness, to the social structures that governed everyday life and norms and are central to the plot. I also felt that the characters were too hollow and that the dialogue between humans was forced and unnatural. Characters would speak to one another in such a way as to reveal information to the reader to try and plug some of the aforementioned gaps, but in such a way that it just felt contrived and like a stage whisper rather than real conversation. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the section where Josie’s boyfriend’s mother is trying to curry favour to get him a scholarship for college, taking an old partner of hers out for dinner at a diner lifted straight out of Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks’.
Finally, I didn’t like the way that at the end of the book Ishiguro half heartedly inserts a short section exploring social fears of artificial intelligence through a discussion of whether Klara should or shouldn’t be reverse engineered. It reminded me of the final chapter of David Mitchell’s ‘Slade House’ where he suddenly inserts commentary on the climate crisis in a clumsy way that didn’t fit with the rest of the novel. In my opinion, these themes could have been better explored throughout the course of both novels. To me, ‘Klara and the Sun’ just felt patchy and incomplete, with vague, childish and zeitgeist references to the climate crisis – Klara’s obsessions with the sun and pollution – and the use of AI driven technology within society. I am not sure why it has received quite so many rave reviews. It’s not a terrible book, and the first half showed promise, but it left me underwhelmed. I like my science fiction world building a little bit more fully fleshed and comprehensive than Ishiguro has offered up in ‘Klara and the Sun’, and I like my characters to be believable.
Honour – Elif Shafak
Sometimes I struggle to get engrossed in a split narrative novel, as there are lots of characters and a lot of detail to get to grips with before the story can start. This is not the case with Elif Shafak’s writing though, as she pulls you in from the very first page and her character development and sense of time and place are superb. ‘Honour’ is, so far, the best book I’ve read all year. It tells the story of a Turkish Kurdish couple who move to London in the 1970s with their three children. ‘Honour’ starts with a visit by Esma to Shrewsbury Prison to pick up her elder brother Iskender at the end of his fourteen year sentence for the murder of their mother.
Told in alternating chapters from the perspective of the three siblings, the plot follows the family from the 1950s to the 1990s, hurtling through to the inevitable climax which is explored from multiple angles, and which is no less shocking for having been revealed at the very start of the book. I read it in chunks, staying up through the small hours to finish it as once I got started each night, I couldn’t put it down.
The only niggle I had with the story was that I found parts of it – the final section – a little improbable, which surprised me considering how tight the rest of the novel is in storyline and writing. Still, it’s a fantastic book and well worth reading.
I love Elif Shafak’s writing and can’t wait to read her latest ‘The Island of Missing Trees’ which I have on reserve at the library.
Shenzhen – Guy Delisle
‘Shenzhen’ is a graphic memoir by Guy Delisle, describing the three months he spent in the Chinese city back in 1997. I love his style of chronicling his days through images, and tore through this in an hour or two before bed one evening. Perhaps not the most obvious choice of book for a vegan – much of the memoir charts his meals and culinary explorations within the city – but entertaining nonetheless.
The Topeka School – Ben Lerner
I enjoyed this when I first picked it up, but it soon languished on my bedside table or on the floor in the living room, and I couldn’t get into the plot, so I took it back to the library unfinished. The narrative jumps back and forth between characters and time periods, but in a way that left me grasping to pick up the pieces rather than enjoying the story. It’s funny, sometimes I love split narratives. Madeleine Thien does split narratives beautifully, as does Elif Shafak, but it just didn’t work for me in Lerner’s ‘The Topeka School’.