I went into this book without a single piece of information regarding what it was about: it was an impulse digital rental based on the fact that I was preeeeeetty sure I had heard the name of the novel before (or maybe because of the movie which I just realized also exists??). And that’s it. Yet, despite no expectations, it was still totally not what I expected, in terms of subject matter, writing style, etc. How is that possible? In any case, I found myself struggling to begin reading this one, but then things got easier as it all started rolling along. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but it’s not bad. Let’s dive in:
The Remains of the Day follows a butler in a decent sized English house named Stevens, as he makes his way through the countryside on a little holiday, in an attempt to gain some more help from the household in the form of an old housekeeper, Miss Kenton. The two had previously worked together under the employment of one Lord Darlington, who had been host to many English aristocrats as well as German officers, etc during the time of WWII. As Stevens makes his way to visit Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn), we see many flashbacks of Lord Darlington, and different incidents between Miss Kenton and Stevens during their time together. Through these tales, we see many themes emerge such as that of dignity, what makes a great butler, poise, how some people never show their true feelings, and how many feel that they are not qualified to have opinions on matters that they really should as it affects them greatly. All in all, there is a lot going on in terms of relationship politics as well as the politics of the time.
But speaking of time, something I had difficulty with in this book was really determining what time-period certain events were, how old characters were at any given point in the story, etc etc. Perhaps this is because I was not paying close enough attention at times? Stevens would go on lengthy tangents all over the place bringing up various people and events that would ultimately unwind back to the present day, but there was a bit of jumping around to follow that I got lost in at one point during reading.
Anyhow, at it’s core, The Remains of the Day centers on a theme of looking back, and how events of the past has led us to where we are. Miss Kenton and Stevens clearly have affection for one another (got those Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes from Downton Abbey vibes, y’all), but there is a sense that opportunities were missed, and perhaps had certain moments gone a different way, things could have ended up far differently than they did. Isn’t that just the way lots of people go through life? Thinking about what could have been and so holding on to the past, when the future still lays ahead of them? Because of this central theme, the end of the novel does hold both a bit of a melancholic but also hopeful tone. It’s quite subtle and beautiful, and yet sometimes these subtleties throughout the novel were hard to pick up on for me, until really the very end.
I think the difficulties I had were partially to do with Kazuo Ishiguro’s writing style being a bit different than what I’m used to: I almost backed out of this one early on as the writing is very particular to convey the specific manner of Stevens, which is indeed very stiff and proper at all times. Now, this is great in conveying what the character is like, but this stiffness does come off as a bit closed-off and too professional at times (despite being written in a personal journal or something of the like). This is why sometimes visual mediums are great for this kind of thing, as you can see posturing, body language, sly glances, etc (one of the reasons why I adore the 2006 movie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, as it really helped me get into the relationships and characters a bit more than when I had previously read the novel). Though, perhaps this is more of a personal issue, in that I just needed to get used to the writing and therefore it was a bit harder to pick up on it’s subtleties than say, with a manner I am more familiar with.
All in all, I would say that this novel didn’t have a strong start for me, as I struggled a bit to get into it, but the ending was quite nice and drew on more emotions and connected with me more than the rest of the novel did. There wasn’t really a big climactic moment, so the whole thing kind of passed along at one pace with a pretty constant mood, and some distinction or variety there may have been nice for the pace and overall experience of the novel. That being said, it is a decent read, and does hit on some feelings that I think a lot of people experience in our world, more or less in terms of regret from the past, and the inability to get past this to work on the future. I mean, I even experience this from time to time and I am only in my twenties! So for all that, The Remains of the Day is a solid middle-ground read for me.