Book Review: The Remains of the Day

"The Remains of the Day" might be ten years old now but I'm of the opinion it's better to read an old but great book than a new but crap offering.

This book should be a dry and humourless affair but somehow it isn't.

Mr Stevens (first name unknown) is an English butler who has spent the best part of his career working for Lord Darlington of Darlington Hall. Lord Darlington is a distinguished and upstanding part of the English aristocracy and the book centres on Mr Stevens service under the Lord during the years between WWI and WWII. But now Lord Darlington has passed on, Darlington Hall is in the hands of a wealthy American owner and Mr Stevens is on the wrong side of 50. At this point in his life, Mr Stevens is reflecting on his career, the values he believes in and the choices he has made. Over a series of days, he travels to visit a housekeeper who he once worked with and as he recalls his life, we grow to despise yet love the man.

This book won the Booker Prize and it's not hard to see why. The plotting is nothing short of exemplary. From the day he sets off, we're lurching towards that penultimate meeting with Miss Kenton. As we move on, the true importance of that meeting is gradually revealed as casual anecdotes paint the picture of his life, piece by piece. Hints of larger issues are scattered throughout, slowly and carefully threaded together. Part of Ishiguro's brilliance is his ability to build such large and powerful tales from the very smallest of details.

At the heart of it this may be a love story but there's nothing simple about it. The expressions of affection at the climax are so mannered that they would be ridiculous, if their context did not make them so very, very moving.

I've read all of Kazuo Ishiguro's novels now and I can easily point out the similarities between them. All are told from the first person and all carefully detail a fractured facade. His other works are careful pieces of writing but ultimately they leave me clutching for meaning (eg. the surreal, extraordinary "The Unconsoled"). That's not to say they lack emotional power: he is undoubtedly a master of expressing heartbreak. But after you've swallowed the lump in your throat and blinked away the tears, you're still left with some strange sense of "why?".

This one makes it's point all too clearly. Where some write novels that explore the joy of life, Ishiguro explores instead those hollow places in our hearts that we all try to ignore. Where some build stories upon human strengths, he carves characters from their flaws.

© David Gilliver 1998

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