Book Review: The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

An image from the film version starring Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton and Anthony Hopkins as Stevens

I’ve been a Kazuo Ishiguro fan since reading Never Let Me Go sometime back in 2006. In the past year though, I’ve read three of his novels. First, I re-read Never Let Me Go in anticipation of the movie release; the book was better than I remembered. Although I enjoyed the movie, they mangled the most crucial scene. I maintain that, had the scene been done correctly, the movie would have been perfect, award-worthy material (not to say that it wasn’t; I was just disappointed.) Shortly after my re-read, I began When We Were Orphans, which chronologically comes before Never Let Me Go, but after The Remains of the Day. The novel was much more action-packed, but maintained the restraint and subtlety I’ve come to expect from Ishiguro novels. The suspense builds until the final moments, when everything quietly lines up and falls into place.

Subtlety is perhaps the element I admire most in writing. Please don’t get me started on Truman Capote’s novella Handcarved Coffins; I’ve been known to sing its praises for hours. Mechanics, plot, and structure can be easily taught. Subtlety, though, remains elusive– a mixture of pacing, technical prowess, and slight gradations in character, plot, whatever it is that makes the story tick. Although my love of Capote is no secret, I’ve become convinced that Ishiguro is truly the modern master of subtlety.

Back to The Remains of the Day. The story follows Stevens, an English butler who served in the household of Lord Darlington in the 1940s. The novel begins in 1956. Since then, Lord Darlington has died, and the American Mr. Farraday has bought the old manor. Mr. Farraday suggests that Stevens take a drive or vacation while he’s away. After some deliberation, Stevens decides to take a trip to visit Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper while Lord Darlington was alive, who now lives in Cornwall with her husband.

The novel is a remarkable character study. The action centers on the relationships between Stevens, Miss Kenton, Lord Darlington, and Stevens’ father. World War II is on the horizon and Lord Darlington, an amateur diplomat, becomes enmeshed in brokering talks between important political leaders. Stevens serves as his trusted butler, a man whose loyalty knows no bounds and who values dignity above all else. He defends Lord Darlington from every and any detractors, including Miss Kenton, an American senator, and even Lord Darlington’s own godson. He never questions Lord Darlington’s actions, particularly his dealings with high-ranking German officials.

Slowly, as Stevens drives to Cornwall over the course of several days, he begins to piece together the background of what happened at the manor in the early 1940s. As he does so, he realizes that the man he served for so long may not have deserved his praise. He was perhaps well-intentioned, but still an amateur in over his head.

Stevens harps on modern butlers, those without dignity or integrity. He served Lord Darlington blindly, never questioning his actions or motives. As he makes his way to Cornwall though, he begins to question his own service, values, and integrity as both a butler and bystander.

Throughout the drive, Ishiguro adds layers, slight gradations, to Stevens’ character. One doesn’t stop in the middle of the novel to say “wow, this is a brilliant book.” One must wait until the end for it all to sink in. Flashbacks are woven in deftly and without heavy-handed signaling. Every bit of action, every scene, leads back to Stevens’ service and values as a butler. Although some scenes appear out of place as the story unfolds, their importance becomes clear later on in the narrative.

The story moves rather slowly. Changes in characters and beliefs are so slight at times that they go unnoticed. At times, the novel was so subtle, the meaning and message became lost. This is a book to ponder, not one to race through. I needed several days of reflection after reading to fully absorb it. The Remains of the Day needs the right kind of reader, but overall, I was again blown away by Ishiguro’s talent and skill. A character study has never been done so well.

The cover of my edition proudly reads “Now a film from Columbia Pictures.” I haven’t yet seen the movie, though I plan to in the next couple weeks or so. My mom, who never misses an opportunity to praise Anthony Hopkins, has assured me that the film is incredible. I’ll let you know what I think.

One Response to “Book Review: The Remains of the Day”
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  1. […] a full review, read here. A beautiful character study that cements Ishiguro as a master of subtlety. Although it’s not […]

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