Music has always been a complete mystery to me. I was born with zero musical talent, and the idea of creating a new tune out of nothing is so incomprehensible to me, it’s nothing short of magic. I’ll never be someone who can analyze music or discuss musical theory, yet I often find myself in awe when a song or a chord evokes ecstasy, brings tears to my eyes, or triggers a long neglected memory. The power of music to conjure strong emotion and temporarily bring people together is at the heart of Kazuo Ishiguro’s short story collection Nocturnes.
The stories are varied. In “Crooner,” a Venice-based guitar player connects with an aging singer looking to make a comeback; in “Come Rain or Come Shine,” a guy with great musical taste finds out his two close friends are having marriage problems; in “Malvern Hills,” a young songwriter visits his sister in the country in the hopes of finding time to write and ends up connecting with a Swiss couple; in “Nocturne,” a struggling saxophonist has plastic surgery in a Hail Mary attempt to restart his career (or is it to bring back his wife, who’s left him for a more handsome man?); in “Cellists,” a talented cellist meets a “virtuoso” who helps improve his art, only to find out that said virtuoso can’t actually play the instrument herself.
The stories are loosely strung together, in some cases through recurring characters and locations, but connecting is the theme that ties them together. In “Crooner,” when the narrator hears the aging crooner start to sing very softly, he is amazed by how well the singer still sounds. “And for a moment it was like I was a boy again, back in that apartment, lying on the carpet while my mother sat on the sofa, exhausted, or maybe heart-broken, while Tony Gardner’s albums spun in the corner of the room.” Who doesn’t have music that sends them back to their childhood (for me, it’s Nat King Cole)? That this story takes a melancholy turn makes this passage even more poignant.
Music in this collection is elevated far above the technical skill required to create it. In “Malvern Hills,” the narrator plays a song of his own composition to the Swiss couple, and the man says, ” ‘When you come to record your song, you must tell the producer this is how you want it to sound. Like this!’ He gestured behind him at Herefordshire stretched out before us. ‘You must tell him this is the sound, the aural environment you require. Then the listener will hear your song as we heard it today, caught in the wind as we descend the slope of the hill . . . ‘ ”
Kazuo Ishiguro is the award-winning author of The Remains of the Day, my favorite book that I read in 2022. And while these stories all had interesting premises, and certain passages were indeed exquisite, they fell short for me in some ways. “Crooner” is probably the most bittersweet of the collection; “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “Nocturne” flirt with absurdity, which is fine, but not necessarily Ishiguro’s strong suit. Most of the stories fail to resolve in a manner that satisfied me but rather felt like they trailed off at the end.
While I enjoyed reading these stories and appreciated the themes, I can’t say I loved this collection. Whether people with more musical inclination would enjoy it more or less than I did, my tone-deaf ears and I couldn’t say for sure.