"The Remains of the Day" by Kazuo Ishiguro

I read this book early in the summer, but I had forgotten to post my review here. Thank you Kristin for reminding me!

“The Remains of the Day” is the story of Stevens, one of the last old-fashioned butlers in England. Stevens served Lord Darlington at Darlington Hall for 35 years, and after his master’s death, he remained working at the house when it was sold to an American gentleman. When he is given a week off by his new employer, Stevens decides to take a road trip to Cornwall to see Miss Keaton, a former housekeeper at Darlington Hall. The story, told in the first person, alternates the account of Stevens’ trip with reminiscences of the past.

I could never have guessed that an account of the life of a butler and of the details of his profession could make for such an entrancing story. But of course, the details of professional affairs of a butler are only the beginning of what this story is about. This is a tale of loss, of sacrifice, of choices and regret. Set in the 1940’s, the story also examines, through Stevens’ memories, the state of Europe before and during the Second World War, dealing with topics like anti-Semitism and fascism.

There is a sad quietness to this book that really gripped me. The degree of emotional restraint Stevens shows is almost alarming. When wondering what it is that makes a great butler, he comes to the conclusion that it is having “a dignity in keeping with his position”. In other words, it is his opinion that a truly great butler never steps outside his role unless he is completely alone. But as one reads the books, it becomes increasingly obvious that Stevens doesn’t step outside his role even when he is alone. He denies himself things like a personal life, an occasional emotional outburst, the right to criticize his employer.

As the story advances, then, one realizes that Stevens is a narrator that cannot be fully trusted. His emotional restraint is such that he is ultimately lying to himself about key matters. His memories are distorted, and, although this is never clearly stated in the book, he seems to be aware of this at some level.

I loved the subtlety of this book. It is full of feelings – full of sadness, regret, and ultimately, hopefulness – but they are palely lurking behind the page, hiding between the lines. They are disguised, but remain ever-present throughout the story.

The use of language in this book is very formal, to a degree that is almost stiff, but it remains beautiful and charming despite of that. And the ending – without giving anything away, I’ll just say that the ending is absolutely perfect. Very moving, very sad, but hopeful in a quiet sort of way.