Being my first Ishiguro novel, I knew nothing going into this. People had warned me of its slow pace, its quiet prose, but I honestly didn’t expect a book barely 300 pages thick to take me this long to read. Still, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. I might even be tempted to pick up other books by this author.
Published: Faber & Faber, 2005 (1989)
My rating: 8,5/10
First sentence: It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days.
In 1956, Stevens, a long-serving butler at Darlington Hall, decides to take a motoring trip through the West Country. The six-day excursion becomes a journey into the past of Stevens and England, a past that takes in fascism, two world wars and an unrealised love between the butler and his housekeeper. Ishiguro’s dazzling novel is a sad and humorous love story, a meditation on the condition of modern man, and an elegy for England at a time of acute change.
Fans of a good period drama will surely love this. If you’re at all interested in the downstairs part of Downton Abbey, this is a book that, in exquisite prose, gives you an insight into a servant’s life that you simply can’t get from TV. This is a very slow-paced, quite book, that comes alive not through action or even “things happening” but has a flow to it that I find hard to describe. I had a hard time getting into the story at first but once I relaxed into the style, it was a revel from then onwards.
Stevens is a fascinating protagonist. Every aspect of his private life is secondary to his being a great butler. His own family, the chance for love, his health, and his opinions – nothing matters if they obstruct, in any way, his master’s comfort. He goes into some detail describing what makes a butler great and it is in his memories and musings that we see not only how deep his devotion is but we find out why he chose to live a life of truly passionate service. Stevens believes that, in being a great butler and providing an important gentlemen with as many comforts as he can, he helps a little bit in shaping the course of the world. Realising how small the part he plays is only makes him prouder to be part of it at all.
There are a few side characters here, and they all feel very fleshed-out and real. But the focus lies clearly on Stevens – and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. While reading, my inner psychoanalyst was rejoicing at such an interesting subject. Reading about and understanding Stevens’ subtlety was a pleasure that I didn’t expect. His peculiar relationship with the housekeeper, Miss Kenton, is described in even quieter tones but gives more room for thought.
Perhaps it is indeed time I begin to look at this whole matter of bantering more enthusiastically. After all, when one thinks about it, it is not such a foolish thing to indulge in – particularly if it is the case that in bantering lies the key to human warmth.
In short, this is the story of a man who has devoted his life to his vocation and, looking back at it, ponders about the remains of the day – and whether it was all worth it.
THE GOOD: Beautiful language, an insight into an old school butler’s life, and one of the most intriguing protagonists I’ve ever read about.
THE BAD: Takes a long time to get going and stays very subdued. Nothing for impatient readers or fans of lots of action.
THE VERDICT: A touching and magnificently written work of literature that will stay with me for quite some time.
RATING: 8,5/10 Quite excellent