Ever since I read Never Let Me Go a few years back, I’ve meant to read another by Kazuo Ishiguro. I’ve had The Remains of the Day on my shelf, waiting patiently, for quite some time, so I put it on my TBR Pile Challenge list. It’s the sixth book I’ve read for the challenge, which means I’m halfway through!
About the Book:
The loose frame of The Remains of the Day is a six-day motoring holiday that Stevens, butler to Mr. Farraday, is taking at the behest of his employer, who will himself be traveling for a few weeks and wishes for his staff to get out of grand old Darlington Hall for a spell. Stevens has had a letter from Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper of Darlington Hall, in which he detects hints she might be longing to return to service. The novel is a kind of diary, perhaps, kept by Stevens over those days of traveling the English countryside in 1956, on his way to visit Miss Kenton, now Mrs. Benn, who is a key player in many of Stevens’ recollections.
That storyline, however, takes up just a fraction of the novel. The rest, even as Stevens tries to stay with the present, continually loops back on itself, delving into memories of his life in service to great men and exploring thoughts on topics like the nature of dignity and loyalty, the role of banter in human connection, and what it takes to be a truly great butler.
If the above synopsis sounds boring, I assure you that its execution is not. Even as I was reading, I would pause from time to time and wonder how on earth such a story could be interesting — but it is, and quite so at that.
The story itself is a patchwork of vignettes stitched together by Stevens’s commentary. Through his eyes we witness the meetings of prominent men, exchanges between members of the house staff, and, in the background, history unfolding and times changing. We pick up on the themes he loves best and begin to notice things he himself seems to overlook. We hope he will eventually return to such-and-such a thread to fill in the gaps left by vague allusions. And through it all, we follow his progress from Darlington Hall to Little Compton — and his impending reunion with Miss Kenton — over the days of his trip.
Ishiguro has done masterful job capturing the almost stream-of-consciousness meanderings of someone who cannot help but derail the present in favor of some pebble from the past that has lodged in his metaphorical shoe. The associations that toss Stevens into earlier times, the ways he finds to steer the narrative back around to his topics of choice, are nothing short of fascinating. You can almost imagine him sitting there in some quaint roadside inn, physically present but glassy-eyed as the whole of his inner being wanders back to relive some snippet of memory.
Stevens himself is another masterpiece. His voice is distinct and consistent, even if he himself is not the most reliable of narrators. His shifting interpretations and justifications, the way he subtly reveals or conceals information to suit his purpose, his backtrackings and musings, paint a picture of a well-intentioned man who cannot quite be honest even with himself. His ongoing commitment to performing his duties with the utmost professionalism and dignity lead to some quietly heartbreaking moments of missed connection. Infinitesimally fleeting glimpses of different endings go by unnoticed by Stevens, and even though I hoped he might eventually recognize one and seize it, I knew he would not. He is not a character destined for thrilling plot twists, and you know it from the start. That’s ok. It’s not that kind of story, anyway.
I was pleasantly surprised by how readable the prose was. It could have been dense, but instead it was both pitch perfect and easy to read. The pages flew by with the miles and memories. After tackling bigger commitments like I Know This Much Is True, Black Swan Green, and The Cunning Man (all excellent, by the way), it was nice to zip through a TBR Pile Challenge title without feeling like I’d veered into the realm of fluff.
The Verdict: the high end of Enjoyable
I liked Never Let Me Go, but I think I prefer The Remains of the Day. The two books are quite different, and the latter is more my style. Still, both are competent works by a skilled author, and I’d recommend either to anyone interested.
What novels do you love that are continually wandering back into the past?