Remains of the Day (Review)

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The Remains of the Day
Kazuo Ishiguro, 1989
256 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
January 2008

I know. This is sooo not cutting edge. Remains has been around for 20 years now, and it's been discussed ad nauseam. In fact, I wanted to write about Ishiguro's more recent Never Let Me Go—but this book is just so good.

Remains is an English teacher's dream: there's so much going on beneath the surface—and it's so carefully pieced together—that it makes the sparks fly out of our chalk. It's a modern classic.

First, there's not a lot of plot. This is a character-driven novel—but what a character! Stevens is the butler of a once great English estate, and he tells us his story. In doing so, he becomes the poster child for Unreliable Narrator, matched for sheer cluelessness only by the narrator in Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier.

Stevens sets out on a journey (to find the manor's former housekeeper), a tip-off for a "journey of self-discovery," and along the way we learn more and more of his service for the late Lord Darlington. A noxious odor emanates from the car, forcing him to stop. In a conversation with the man who repairs the car, we readers gain our first whiff of Lord Darlington's own noxious past. Ishiguro is a subtle writer: he cleverly embeds the bad odor as a literary symbol. Lots of more of that throughout.

Ishiguro is an agile angler who lets out his line, bit by bit, before he reels us in. He withholds and then carefully releases information. Only gradually do we come to understand the true significance of Stevens's 30 years with Lord Darlington.

Poor Stevens—it takes him that long to get it. He has been so consumed with maintaining his professional ideals that he's negated his own humanity—and forgone love that would have enriched his life immeasurably. It isn't until the end that self-revelation rolls over him (and us) in a powerful wave of self-disgust.

One particular episode concerns Stevens's dying father. I think a book group could have a wonderful discussion parsing the ethical choice, personal vs. professional, that Stevens had to make.

Oh, don't forget to catch the superb 1993 film adaptation with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson—after you read the book...uh, of course.

See our Reading Guide for The Remains of the Day.

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