Book Review: The Remains of the Day

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And yet what precisely is this “greatness”? Just where, or in what, does it lie? I am quite aware it would take a far wiser head than mine to answer such a question, but if I were forced to hazard a guess, I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it.

The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

When I was in elementary school and learning to write, my teachers would invariably say the same thing: “Show, don’t tell.” For my childhood self, this meant attempting descriptive language. Instead of flat out declaring, “he had a brown dog”, I would substitute other, more “sophisticated” synonyms for “brown” (chestnut, mahogany, roan?), often abusing Word’s thesaurus function. “Show, don’t tell,” is a difficult lesson for grade schoolers, but I find that there are also few authors who do it well.

Kazuo Ishiguro is a master of “show, don’t tell”. I’ve previously read two of Ishiguro’s works: Never Let Me Go (beautiful, hollow, and depressing), and The Buried Giant (a bore and a waste of time). Despite my polarized opinions of those books, what was consistent in those two novels was the use of subtlety. What’s important is what is not said, what is implied, what is left out and left for the reader to deduce. And that same masterful technique is employed to perfection in The Remains of the Day.

The narrator of The Remains of the Day is Stevens, the supremely professional head butler of Darlington Hall. The plot of the novel is straightforward: Stevens’s employer, Mr. Farraday, suggests that he take a few days off to see the countryside, and Stevens accepts, planning to visit Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn), a former colleague. The narrative is peppered throughout with Stevens’s nostalgia: days of Darlington Hall’s former glory, his sometimes amicable relationship with Miss Kenton, and his musings on dignity and the merits of a truly great butler.

Stevens’s role as a butler makes him the perfect voice to illustrate the “show, don’t tell” method. Stevens considers his finest quality as a butler to be his dignity, dependent on his ability to conceal his own emotions. Even when belittled by his employer’s peers or saddened by his father’s death, Stevens remains composed and dignified, to the extent that he does not even describe his own feelings about the events. The narration is perfect: it not only kept me intrigued and engaged, it made me empathize with Stevens’s inability to express emotion for the sake of his career.

The lack of overtness in The Remains of the Day is so prevalent that when a character (Miss Kenton) finally says exactly what they mean, it was so jarring that I had to reread the passage. I saw Stevens’s refusal to deal with his own emotions as a commentary on British society, previous generations, and the silencing of the lower classes, which is actually a point of discussion for Lord Darlington and his companions.

I simply loved this book. The narrative structure is similar to Never Let Me Go: first-person narration, flashbacks, a not entirely reliable narrator, and a hopeful journey. Like Never Let Me Go, it evoked similar feelings of regret, hope, and loneliness. And while I sometimes grew frustrated with Stevens’s complacency, it was impossible to not sympathize with him. The novel begins with Stevens worrying about his inability to banter with Mr. Farraday. He proceeds to practice bantering, highlighting how Stevens’s devotion to his professional life has inhibited his personal enjoyment even of trivial things. Despite the fact that the novel was written before I was born and set in the 1950s, I saw more than a sliver of myself in this anxious but well-meaning protagonist.

YES OR NO?: YES. I was already a fan of Ishiguro before I read this book, but I would have to say this is probably my favorite of his works. I wouldn’t recommend this book if you want something fast, plot-oriented, or uplifting, but if you’re interested in historical fiction and character studies and don’t mind a meandering narrative, this would be perfect.

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