Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)

For our latest read, my wonderful book club (go DAFFODILS!) decided to read something from a decade we had not yet explored, the 1980s. We had a democratic vote and ended up selecting a book that I suggested, and that I had read before, back in college, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989).

When I read this book almost 15 years ago, I thought it was amazing, and I still think it is very very good, although with my intense memories of how great it was I set myself a pretty high bar. The Remains of the Day tells the story of Mr. Stevens, a man who has been the butler in a wealthy and formerly well-respected house in England for over 30 years. His former employer, Lord Darlington, has died, and Stevens "came with the house" when a wealthy American recently bought it.

His new boss does the very American thing of telling Stevens to take a little road trip while he will be out of the country and not needing any buttling. He even loans Stevens his car and gives him a little traveling money. Stevens sets out to explore the English countryside, and to visit a former housekeeper who served during the reign of Lord Darlington, Miss Kenton.

Mr. Stevens narrates the book and takes us back and forth between his current travels and his memories of his years of service, the past grandeur of the house, and his colleague, Miss Kenton. Stevens is a classic unreliable narrator, not because he is crazy or deceptive, but because his own rigid codes of behavior don't allow him to see what has been happening around him, both with the people in his life and with his employer and his ill-informed dabblings in international politics.

Ishiguro uses Stevens' unreliability to slowly reveal to us what has happened in the past and what kind of man Stevens really is. That authorial control, the narrative voice, and the perfect structure of the novel are what makes this a great one, even if the ultimate message is a little disappointingly simple.

And just in case I've made this sound like some kind of boring writing exercise, be assured that the book has a lot of humor in it (like Stevens studiously studying the art of bantering, or Stevens trying to teach a young gentleman about the birds and the bees as ordered by his employer). This is a book that is both literary and fast-moving, and if it leaves the reader feeling a little cold, I think we can just blame that on Steven's surfeit of dignity.

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