The Remains of the Day tells the story of Stevens, an elderly butler who worked for many years in the service of Lord Darlington of Darlington Hall. After his master’s death, Stevens has continued to serve the house’s new American owner, Mr Farraday. Given a week’s holiday – and the use of Mr Farraday’s car – Stevens decides to take a drive through the English countryside to visit Miss Kenton, Darlington Hall’s former housekeeper. During the journey, he reminisces about the past, about his relationship with Miss Kenton, and about what makes a butler ‘great’.
I loved this book; it’s definitely one of my favourites of the year. It’s a gentle, slow-paced novel but completely compelling and, despite the lack of drama, I found it difficult to put down. I’m aware that my description above probably doesn’t make the story sound very interesting but I can promise you that it really is! Stevens’ trip through the South West of England (which takes place in 1956) and his memories of the past (the 1920s and 1930s) give the author a chance to explore lots of different topics from the daily duties of a butler and the running of an English country house to the political situation in Europe between the two world wars. Most of all, though, this is a story about loss and regret, misplaced loyalties and missed opportunities.
One of the things I found most impressive about this book was the authenticity of Stevens’ narrative voice. Ishiguro gets it completely right; the language is formal, emotionally restrained and perfectly suited to what we learn of Stevens’ personality. I could almost have believed that I really was reading the memoirs of an elderly British butler! The edition that I read (a library book) was from Faber and Faber’s ‘Secrets and Lies’ series of modern classics, which immediately made me wonder what secrets Stevens was keeping from us and what lies were being told. However, it’s not as simple as that. Unlike some unreliable narrators, Stevens is not intentionally trying to mislead the reader; he is actually lying to himself. He knows, for example, that Lord Darlington’s views are not always entirely right, but he wouldn’t dream of questioning them and manages to convince himself that there’s nothing to worry about.
Stevens spends a lot of time thinking about the qualities that make a great butler and he decides that the most important of these qualities is ‘dignity’. Sadly, Stevens has devoted so much of his life to maintaining his dignity that he has missed out on things like love and friendship and has denied himself the right to form opinions of his own. He never allows himself to experience pleasure or enjoyment and never displays any emotion, even when faced with personal tragedy. His story is such a sad one, though not without any humour – the book is quite funny in places, especially when Stevens describes his unsuccessful attempts at ‘bantering’. The ending is perfect too; the book’s final chapter is poignant and moving but does leave both the reader and Stevens with some hope and optimism.
The only other book I’ve read by Kazuo Ishiguro is Never Let Me Go, which I enjoyed but didn’t love as much as this one, although it’s difficult to compare the two as they’re so completely different. Now I’m wondering which of his books I should read next.