I had no idea what this book was going to be about when I first picked it up. I only knew I liked the author and this book was one of his ‘must reads’, so I better read it. I was pleased when I read the back cover – ‘Stevens, an ageing butler, has embarked on a rare holiday. But his travels are disturbed by the memories of a lifetime of service to the late Lord Darlington, and most of all by the increasingly painful recollection of his friendship with the housekeeper, Miss Kenton.’ If I had read this description on any other author’s work, I probably would have said ‘Bleh’ and put it back down. But, I am familiar with Ishiguro’s writing style and story telling abilities and I was pleased because I thought he could do such a story justice. I wasn’t wrong! This was a fantastic take on something that could have been a very dry and cliched subject.
What I love best about Ishiguro is his excellent ability to inhabit a character. I can’t think of any comparable story by a different author in which a first person narrator (or any narrator, really) feels so real. I experienced this with Never Let Me Go and that was written from the point of view of a very different character. So, obviously, this isn’t a fluke – it’s why Ishiguro is such a great author.
I can’t say I’ve read a lot of books that were told by an unreliable narrator. I’ve heard the idea discussed a lot, but it’s not something I’ve experienced, at least in a way when it’s done very well, until I read this book. I would be totally taken in by whatever Stevens was saying, and then a character would say something like “Have you been crying?”, or when he catches up with Miss Kenton but addresses her as Mrs Benn, and I would realize that he wasn’t telling the whole story. His restrained excitement at the possibility of Miss Kenton’s return was very sweet. This narrative style made Stevens’ own admittance of emotion towards the end of the novel extremely moving and bittersweet, I almost teared up (the only books I’ve ever properly cried at are by John Green) (SPOILERS!!!!):
“I do not think I responded immediately, for it took me a moment or two to fully digest these words of Miss Kenton. Moreover, as you might appreciate, their implications were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed – why should I not admit it? – at that moment, my heart was breaking. Before long, however, I turned to her and said with a smile…”
I found the ending of the story as well to be very melancholic and thoughtful and sad…Stevens meets the man who tells him not too keep looking back all the time, and yet here we are at the end of the book and Stevens is still telling us the past story of his interaction with this man. I got the impression that Stevens wants to move forward and does truly agree with the stranger, but it is something very hard for him to do. And that’s understandable, and that’s a very real feeling, and that’s why it’s a hopeful ending tinged with sadness.