I asked for The Remains of the Day as a Christmas present having read Never Let Me Go, by Ishiguro, last year and being very impressed with it. Whilst I have to say I marginally preferred Never Let Me Go, The Remains of the Day lived up to expectations and proved Ishiguro to be an exceedingly talented writer in my mind.
The book is narrated by the ageing butler, Stevens, who has worked at Darlington Hall for the past few decades which is now under the new ownership of an American gentleman, Mr. Farraday. Farraday gives Stevens the opportunity to take his car for a brief holiday which forms the structure of the novel as Stevens makes his way to Cornwall to visit Darlington Hall's previous housekeeper, Miss Kenton. Over the course of the journey he reminisces about his life as a butler - the relationships with his employer and employees and the nature of being a butler, with 'dignity' a heavy theme throughout.
Stevens is an incredibly clever character; whilst technically rather humourless and proper, Ishiguro has managed to create a character who is engaging, likeable and humorous. An encounter on his journey where a village believes him to be a gentlemen is both touching, funny and awkward as are Stevens constant trials with the concept of 'bantering'.
An interesting minor plotline is that of his relationship with his previous employer, Lord Darlington. It becomes apparent that Darlington was working to try and repair relations with Germany in between World War 1 and 2 and came in for heavy criticism towards the onset of World War 2 for his friendly relations with Germany and the Nazis. I enjoyed Ishiguro's decision not to make a big deal out of it; the issue is important because of what it reveals about Stevens' character, not as a piece of political intriguing. Stevens meanders through the idea of loyalty, dignity and the idea that we should all do what we can to further peace and unity. When I write this is sounds awfully close to sentimental 'world peace' ideas, but it is careful and understated. His difficulties in finding a balance between his strong personal care for Darlington and the people he encounters negative feelings are often heartbreaking, when he himself cannot understand why he keeps finding himself denying having worked for Lord Darlington.
The back of the book touts a lost love and whilst his relationship with Miss Kenton is a important thread to the novel, it is by no means a romance. It is always just out of reach and is engaging in that the two characters obvious respect and care for each other never quite can get past the flaws of their characters. Their meeting in Cornwall is beautifully written.
It is difficult to express the beauty of the book as it's strength lies largely in Ishiguro's writing - he is a master of creating a mood with his language and the loveliness of the book comes from the writing and the carefully created main character rather than an exciting plot, indeed very little actually happens. Ishiguro is adept at creating a pervading melancholy atmosphere. Whilst it does not feel like a novel that one could 'spoil' per se, I do not want to give away any of the beautiful structure of the narrative but a moment near the end of the novel when Stevens meets Miss Kenton again is so mutedly melancholic without being overtly tragic that it really demonstrates Ishiguro's talent as a writer.
A unique, careful and wonderful novel.