My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I keep trying to come up with adequate words to describe Kazuo Ishiguro’s writing. “Haunting” seems to come to closest to what he achieves so quietly and elegantly in his prose. I first read Ishiguro when I picked up Never Let Me Go, which suggests a dystopian future in England. The Remains of the Day, an older work, is set in the past, in the post-WWII era. While it isn’t as obviously tragic as Never Let Me Go, it is in some ways perhaps more heartbreaking.
The Remains of the Day follows Mr. Stevens into the twilight of his life, as he reflects on his years in the service of Lord Darlington as butler of the latter’s majestic English estate. Now under the employ of Mr. Farraday, an American, Stevens leaves the estate to embark on a journey through the English countryside with the hopes of convincing former housekeeper Miss Kenton to return to the household.
That, in a nutshell, is the “plot” of The Remains of the Day. It’s certainly not a plot-driven story, instead focusing on what is below the surface, in the private joys and challenges of the characters, particularly Stevens. Ishiguro is masterful at exploring the nuance in his characters, and because of this, we come to learn that although appearances are paramount in Mr. Stevens’ world, what is going on in the private reserves of his mind are far more complex and fascinating. Stevens’ worldview is challenged repeatedly, both by the demands of his new employer (Stevens struggles with the concept of bantering, which seems to be more important to his American employer than his former British one), as well as with the acceptance of who Lord Darlington really was. Stevens is reserved to the point of repression and although this is abundantly clear to the reader, it is less than self-evident to the butler. Through a series of vignettes that he recalls, it is undisputed that Mr. Stevens has given more to his employer than even he realizes. His sacrifice may be in service of what is noble and proper, but he has little to show for his efforts.
Like Never Let Me Go, The Remains of the Day leaves the reader feeling melancholy, heartbroken by the sense that although Ishiguro’s characters can’t miss something they never had they are missing it anyway.