This book will not count towards my 20 books of summer because I finished it at the end of May. Last few weeks have been pretty busy, so I had to choose between reading and writing and reading won.
The main character and narrator of this book is Stevens, a butler at Darlington Hall, that has slight problems adjusting to Mr Farraday, the new American owner of the Hall, having proudly worked for Lord Darlington almost his entire life. Stevens has been given as few days off and a free use of the car while Mr Farraday goes back to US for a while. He decides to pay a visit to Miss Kenton, the housekeeper he worked with for years, that recently wrote a letter to him in which she indicated she misses the Hall immensely. Stevens thinks of bringing Miss Kenton back. His trip takes him five days and every evening Stevens writes down a diary of the events, things he saw, thought about and remembered. It is a fantastic mix of travel writing, retelling of his past, but also general thoughts of human condition, dignity, work and the role it plays in our life. All of these aspects bring us closer to Stevens, as he analyses his life and behaviour.
I had to constantly remind myself that it is 1959 when Stevens tells us his story, because his language and attitude to life, duties and himself made me think it is the end of 19th century or beginning of the 20th. Very similar impression that the one I had reading On Chesil Beach, which was happening in 1962, so only three years later.
Gradually we get to know the relation between Stevens and Miss Kenton, it did not start smoothly but over the months developed and grew. While travelling to meet Miss Kenton Stevens takes stock of his life, thinking about what makes a great butler and whether he can aspire to that title. The moment I started reading this book I imagined Stevens looking like Sir Anthony Hopkins, despite not seeing the movie. It is probably because the language used by Stevens is so formal, but not without tenderness and even a hint of sense of humour and irony, I could hear Hopkins reading it in my head.
The book focuses on characters a lot more than on the plot, using events to give us more insights on Stevens and Miss Kenton. Memories of their work relation and events leading to WWII are so intertwined in Stevens mind that it is easy to find parallels between those two story lines as events take darker turn.
It was a great book about human condition, touching on many topics, such as does our work define who we are and should it, are all people truly equal, is sense of responsibility and loyalty always right and justified. Ishiguro built powerful characters, set them firmly in the context of dramatically changing world, built the big picture, the middle one, as well as the close ups. All of it with tenderness and not without sense of humour.
The book was an absolute treat, one of those that I will be pushing on people and buying them as gifts. I can’t find a single weak point in it, everything was executed with perfection and I devoured it in two days. I finished the book few weeks ago and I still miss Stevens and his musings on the art of banter and whether he should exercise to get better at it.
What are your favorite books where the main character travels? Who would you like to travel with?
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska
PS. A lot of people wrote about the outcome of UK referendum, so I’ll just add my quick two cents. I think it is a bad decision, for UK, for Europe, it is the end of community and solidarity and beginning of isolation and mistrust. And it is not pleasant at all to be told loud and clear that you’re not wanted or welcome in the country where you lived and worked for the last 5 years.