Book Review – The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

books, reviews

Rating: 5 out of 5.

As much as I enjoyed Klara and the Sun last month, it did leave me with a great desire to reread this beauty. I read a fair few reviews that described the ending of Ishiguro’s latest novel was the most heartbreaking of his career. Yes, it was sad but the most devastating ending? He’s an author who doesn’t think twice about leaving you on the edge of an emotional precipice but I found Klara quite tame in comparison to his earlier work. Particularly this one. I honestly believe that The Remains of the Day has one of the saddest endings I’ve ever read. Yet, it’s a sad ending with hopefulness. This really is quite a book and it was definitely about time that I reread it.

“Indeed — why should I not admit it? — in that moment, my heart was breaking.”

A quote that pretty much sums up my personal feelings every time I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Man Booker Prize winning novel. It has one of the most devastating and wonderful ending in literature. After spending pages with the stoic and pompous Mr Stevens, you turn the final page and feel as though you’re saying goodbye to a friend. Admittedly, a friend who wouldn’t feel comfortable describing himself as such but a friend nonetheless. Within this book, Ishiguro has managed to capture a human life. You learn so much about this man whilst learning so little. This is a reading experience that you don’t come across very often. You’re wading through layers of class, professionalism and good old British stiff upper lip. Meaning you really have to work to see the emotions hidden within the story. Emotions that slowly filter through and really do break your heart.

The book is narrated by Stevens who has spent the best years of his life as the butler at Darlington Hall, a stately home near Oxford. He has dedicated his life to serving Lord Darlington and aspiring to be the best butler he can be. His actions are dictated by his severe understanding of dignity and class. As he makes a journey to revisit a person from his past, Stevens looks back on the time he spent at Darlington Hall and starts to see his life in a new light. Has he made a mistake by staying in service for quite so long? Did he put his trust and faith into the wrong man? Could he have enjoyed a more fulfilling life elsewhere? Sat in a car driving through the English countryside, he can’t help but reflect on how he has ended up where he is.

Though still at Darlington Hall, Stevens is now in the employ of an American millionaire who bought the estate after Lord Darlington’s death. The house is no longer the grand residence it once was and there is a much smaller staff to manage. Stevens decides to take a short holiday after he receives a letter from Miss Kenton, Darlington’s former housekeeper. Borrowing his employer’s car, he drives across the country to visit her. Partly with the intention of adding her to his staff. As the novel goes on, it becomes clear that she was more than just a good colleague and that Mr Stevens has been denying his feelings for a very long time. During his drive, the butler meets a host of people and is forced to reflect on his previous boss. Lord Darlington became embroiled with Germany after the First World War and became a pawn for the Nazis. Despite this, Stevens remained loyal and trusted him implicitly. Slowly, Stevens must come to terms with the fact that he potentially gave up on his one chance of happiness for the wrong man.

This is a frustrating novel to read as it becomes clearer what is really going on. Stevens is a character who has been ruined by class conditioning. He is so dedicated to his profession that he pushes all emotions aside. He doesn’t allow himself to have an identity outside of his work. He believes what his employer believes and will not share his own opinions. This steadfast desire to retain his dignity has caused undoing. Stevens has played the biggest role in his subservience and it has cost him the potential for love. The Remains of the Day captures of a very specific type of Englishness and shows how dangerous it can be. It is something that keeps Stevens from making connections in his own life and with the reader. You can see the gaps and revisions in his narrative that are purposefully included to prevent the reader from getting too close. As unreliable narrators go, Stevens is a tough nut to crack.

Most importantly, this is a book about love. As he drives through the English countryside, Stevens is forced to realise that everything he thought he had was something of a mirage. Everything he believed in was meaningless: the grand house, the position, the huge staff to manage, and the highly regarded employer. Now that all of that is gone, he realises that he let the only real thing he had go. Yet, despite this terrible realisation, there is happiness and hope to this ending. When Stevens realises that he has reached a positive road in his life. The evening is the most enjoyable part of the day, why not enjoy it? Yes, you may have given up the best years of your life but they’re not over yet. You may have missed your big chance for happiness but what is to stop you from finding some now? Ishiguro sure knows how to take with one hand but give with the other.

The Remains of the Day is an incredibly human novel. It serves as both a cautionary tale and a call to action. The fact that the story is told in such a stoic and emotionless way only makes it more heartbreaking. It’s not what is said that really destroys you but what if left unsaid. This a book that seems quiet and sedate on the surface. It makes it seem as though nothing is happening. However, the harder and deeper you look, the louder everything gets. This is my favourite Ishiguro novel for this reason. It does so much by doing so little. It destroys you as it gives you hope. There is such beauty within these pages but reading them will make you feel uncomfortable. I adore everything about this book.

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