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Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Remains of the Day

Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day is an impressive display of commitment to a bit. The novel is told from the perspective of a classically-trained English butler, as he reflects back on his years of service to a tarnished lord. Ishiguro's narrator Stevens is a perfect exemplar of the unreliable narrator, blinded by his loyalty and unwilling to admit the truth about anything. By the end of the novel, he will have almost unwittingly revealed the true nature of his employer to the reader. But that's not at all what he's trying to do.

Stevens is writing what amounts to a dissertation of the butler profession, spliced with his reminiscences of the pre-war days at Darlington Hall, when Lord Darlington would host the most influential figures in Europe, and it was up to Stevens and the housemaid, Miss Kenton, to ensure that all went smoothly.

What Ishiguro accomplishes through his unusual narrative is impressive, but it is of questionable entertainment value. The problem with a narrator who is unwilling to tell you the story you want to hear is that the book becomes weighed down with nearly unbearable (and unbearably repetitive) digressions on the "dignity" of Steven's profession, of the worthiness of him and his father, also a butler, and the relative merits of certain brands of silver polish. It can be extraordinarily frustrating to read Stevens dither on about the most inane thing while wishing that he would just tell you what it is that caused Lord Darlington's downfall.

All in all, even though this question (and others arising throughout the novel) are answered by the end, the book winds up falling into the impressive but un-enjoyable category. Ishiguro is clearly a talented author, one worthy of further reading, but this does not quite rise to the level of its writer. 5.2 out of 10.

Next? I will either circle back and finish Midnight's Children, read All the Pretty Horses or pick up my next Book Club book, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

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