This is more like it.
I read Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go when I was in England. I don’t remember why – maybe it was that phase in my life where I was getting book recommendations from book prize lists. Book prize books are often not good books for me (see Darkmans). However, I really liked Never Let Me Go, and I really liked this one too.
The beginning: The Remains of the Day (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) is all about a butler called Stevens who has been in service for many years, and has gone on a trip to visit an old friend (she sounds unhappy in her marriage), and as he travels, he is remembering his life. This sounds a bit boring but it really isn’t once it gets going.
The end (spoilers sort of? but not like this is a big revelation so much as something you gradually become aware of): It turns out that Stevens’s previous employer was a Nazi sympathizer and proponent of the appeasement policy in the years leading up to World War II. Stevens is not great at handling the cognitive dissonance this engenders.
The whole: I love the way Kazuo Ishiguro writes (love his name too). The narrators are carrying along narrating, and everything’s fine, and then there occurs a jarring note–some incident or anecdote that seems a bit weird. And you’re thinking, Huh. That was weird, but things keep going along, so you aren’t too fussed about it. And then when you’ve mostly forgotten about it, there occurs another jarring note, and another one, until you are quite, quite certain that there is something not very nice going on. Then at the exact moment when you have become completely positive that something is up, that is the exact moment at which it (more or less) snaps into focus.
In this case the not-nice things are related to Stevens’s previous employer’s political affiliations. Again, I swear to you, not as boring as I’ve just made it sound; it’s all about the emotional resonance for Stevens, realizing he’s given his life and all his loyalty to someone who was doing bad things (albeit with good intentions).
At the same time, and with the same theme, you’re seeing flashbacks of Stevens’s relationship with one of his previous coworkers, Miss Kenton – the same lady he is going on a trip to visit in the present day. This is all along the same themes as the business with his employer: the way that he ignores himself for the sake of his professionalism.
Major props, can I just say, to Ishiguro for managing to make this book so absorbing, when the action is essentially emotional rather than actually actiony. It’s books like these that make me carry on picking things up that people say “don’t have much in the way of plot” – I think they’ll be like this. Not a lot happens in The Remains of the Day, but I still couldn’t put it down, and I read it all the way through on Monday evening. It’s funny and sad and evocative and emotionally resonant, and it made me want to go get the rest of Ishiguro’s books and read them.