Reading The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro seemed very apropos considering the popularity of Downton Abbey. Random House Retreat brought this modern classic from 1989 to my attention recently with their online read-along in honour of the reissue of the book in August, ahead of the 2015 release of Ishiguro’s new novel, Buried Giant. I watched the movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson many years ago, but this is my first time reading the novel.
* CONTAINS SPOILERS
Mr. Stevens is an English butler who takes tremendous pride in his profession, a profession that has largely shaped his worldview and identity. Embarking on a road trip to meet his former colleague, Miss Kenton, Stevens reminisces twenty years back to the events leading up to the last time he saw her. He was loyally serving Lord Darlington and ensuring the smooth running of Darlington Hall. When Miss Kenton joined the staff, he was confused by her stubbornness and temper, but managed to establish a working relationship that was agreeable to both. At the time, Lord Darlington was hosting various political and military people in the interest of advancing his pro-Germany sentiments. Although his father’s death and Miss Kenton’s engagement begged for his attention, Stevens could only make time for his duties. Now that he is serving the new American owner of Darlington Hall and so much of the genteel world before the war has disappeared, Stevens questions all he has done and believed.
The Remains of the Day really impressed me with the subtle way you learn about Stevens and his past by following his not entirely reliable narration. Events in the story are never fully explained and everything is inferred as Stevens sifts through his thoughts and memories. I liked how the reader has to think about what Stevens says and does not say to get the full picture. It’s up to us to piece together what Stevens himself cannot admit about his choices.
At times, Stevens rambles a bit too much. Otherwise, I have no complaints and loved this book!
Both The Remains of the Day and Downton Abbey seem to attach a romanticism to the old hierarchical system of domestic work in Britain. As described by Stevens, being a butler commanded a certain amount of power and respect with peers. In this case, Stevens takes his role extremely seriously to the detriment of his personal life. Right up to the end, unable to control the tears, Steven brushes aside his feelings of loss to focus on being a better butler to his new master. (Can you imagine calling your boss “master”?)
Overall, I enjoyed The Remains of the Day because it’s light in tone, but Kazuo Ishiguro stirs the emotions so potently. The story made me reflect on how fragile choices can be and the heart-sinking devastation of regret at the end of one’s life.