I’ve had kind of a mental block about writing this review, which is strange. I often wake up with a review in my head and putting it on paper is easy. I think it’s because I liked this book, but I suspect it’s a great book and I’m not sure I gave it that level of attention. If you’re wondering why, this was the book I read right after I got home from Australia, so it’s all a bit fuzzy.
I hate when I feel like I can’t do a book justice, and this is one of those books. It was awarded the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1989, and also made into a movie with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson (perfect casting, right?).
This is my second book by Ishiguro; last year I read Never Let Me Go. I’m always impressed when an author writes in a really different style or genre, and these two books are very different. The Remains of the Day takes place soon after World War II, and is told from the perspective of an aging butler, Mr. Stevens. Never Let Me Go is about a dystopic future where cloned children raised in a fancy boarding school to donate their organs to non-cloned people until they die.
What I can say about both of these books is they really sneak up on you. Both are subtle and have layers of meaning. You expect a lot of drama and you’re disappointed when you don’t get it… and then you find yourself thinking about the book for days after you’ve finished.
This book, on the surface, is about a man who clearly has feelings for his friend, yet he puts his work ahead of everything else in his life. It’s also about dignity and loyalty and friendship and pride in one’s work. And it’s about class differences, new/old money, and British aristocrats who sided with the Germans during World War II. It’s about morality versus obedience. And on a deeper level, it’s about the moments in life we always remember, especially the moments where a friend needed us and we failed to do or say the right thing – even though we meant to.
The book is written in journal entries, and I often have trouble with journal books, but here it’s the perfect format, because it shows us what a formal person Stevens is. Also, as he’s writing he’s really thinking about what he can or can’t remember, or what he may have remembered incorrectly. So many books written as journals just describe everything as fact, when it’s impossible to remember in that kind of detail, especially from years ago.
Stevens is an unreliable narrator, as he misses a lot of the emotion around him, but as a reader you get the full picture. Is Stevens emotionally stilted, too into his work, insensitive, or just deluded? It takes a lot of writing skill to develop a character like this, and then to tell the story from his perspective.
Am I reading too much into this book? Not by a long shot. This is a book I’ll re-read at some point when I’m more alert. I have a feeling there are a few layers I missed.