This is the first time I’ve read a romance without a trace of love, let alone romance. Yet the main character in The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguru, Mr. James Stevens, is a man who, in the name of the dignity required of his position as English Butler for renowned aristocrat Lord Darlington, forgoes any sort of personal life in fear of neglecting his duties. Even in his off time, he remains steadfast to his sense of honor and decorum.
Yet there was an interval in his life that he felt an attraction to another, the housekeeper, Miss Kenton, who was able to crack his reserve enough to enjoy a few unregulated moments on their evening off times with a cup of chocolate, discussions of the household tasks, and a sharing of reflections. While the reader understands this lapse in rigidity as Stevens attempts at warmth, when the relationship begins to teeter towards intimacy, he clams up and returns to his former ways, afraid to let go. Ms Kenton attempts to breech his reticence by doing little things to irk him, eventually finding herself married to another in the hopes of stirring his emotions. Yet Stevens, the consummate butler, carries on with dignity, the only thing in his life worth cherishing.
It is 1956 and twenty years have passed; the old master has died and the new owner, an American, has purchased the home along with Stevens and a skeleton crew. When Ms Kenton in her correspondence laments that her marriage is in shambles and she misses the old days, James decides to take a road trip in order to visit his companion of old and convince her to come back to Darlington Manor. As he motors along, he reflects on the past events which have shaped his life. Mistakes in judgement have been made, yet it is difficult for the butler to openly admit to the faults of pacifist Lord Darlington (and thus his as well), though his actions as he mingles with the locals say otherwise.
Ishiguro, although born in Japan, moved to England at the age of five and is thoroughly British. A talented individual, who pursues music as well as writing, his works explore numerous genres, flitting from historical novels to mysteries to science fiction. This particular title won the Booker Award in 1989, a prize given to the best works of the year written by an English subject. It was also made into a movie by the same title featuring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson which stayed amazingly true to the original book, bringing it alive. The most telling scene is where Ms Kenton teases James about a book he is hiding, wondering aloud if it is too racy for her to see. When she finally pries it from his fingers, she is disappointed to discover it is a simple romance which he claims to read for its linguistic value. This is as intimate as the two get and is the beginning of the end of their “courtship”. The two actors make the viewers feel the unrealized sexual tension with simple nods and gestures. That’s all we get.
If The Remains of the Day is a true example of his work, Ishiguru is definitely an author to religiously follow. Five stars.