Book review: The Remains of the Day

Stevens, an ageing butler at a stately Oxfordshire house, with the encouragement of his new employer, embarks on a motoring holiday into the West Country. The expedition not only graces him with the sights of some of England’s greatest landscapes, it takes him deep into his own past; and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker-Prize winning novel proves an exquisite inquiry into how one man contends with (unfortunate) decisions made at various points in time that changed the course of his entire life.

In keeping with his punctilious nature, Stevens seeks to justify his vacation with a professional purpose: on this trip, he plans to pay a visit to an erstwhile co-worker, Miss Kenton, who was the housekeeper at the mansion some 20 years ago — in the days of Lord Darlington, the residence’s original owner — before leaving to get married. A recent letter from Miss Kenton appears to suggest her marital union has broken down, and Stevens intends to assess her interest in returning to her former role.

Astutely setting the drama in July 1956, a symbolic moment in Britain’s near-history, Ishiguro explores changes in politics and culture of the nation, which in turn is reflected in his main character’s personal journey.

At face value, this is a story about Stevens’ repression of his romantic feelings towards Miss Kenton, as he strives to uphold the lofty ideal of so-called ‘dignity’ — the notion that “great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost” — only to see the love of his life slip through his fingers. It is a story about his conviction that, despite its blatant irony with the idea of dignity itself, lay persons such as him and us ought to recognise our place and entrust important affairs of the world to members in the upper echelons of society, even if this ends in ignominy, when those people of power suffer lapses in judgement, as is the case with Lord Darlington.

Written in first-person narration, it is the way The Remains of the Day allows us to witness how Stevens reconciles with mistakes in his life that is most compelling, however. While much of his defence will inevitably provoke criticism, even ridicule, readers may find themselves inching slowly towards compassion, before acquiring full understanding of this infuriating personality.

Admittedly, in the days after I had turned over the last page, I was curiously grumpy with an inexplicable feeling of loss; it was as if I had lost a friend in whose life I had come to know so intimately.

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