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3rd February
2010
written by Steph

My only regret is that such a beautiful book had such an ugly cover!

A few years ago when my real-life bookclub was just setting out, I picked Never Let Me Go as our first group read.  I had heard such good things about it (it was nominated for the Booker!) as well as about its author, Kazuo Ishiguro (though I’d never read him before), and it was also dystopian fiction, which I tend to like, so I thought it would be the perfect book to kick things off.  In some ways, it was, because we all had A LOT to say about the book… unfortunately, most of it was negative.  I remember feeling completely underwhelmed with the story, the writing, the characters felt flat and unemotional and nothing about the novel surprised me (not even the so-called twists).  I was SO disappointed, and quite honestly, I wondered what all the hype about Ishiguro was about.  I couldn’t figure out why the book had been nominated for an award, and I couldn’t understand why people tripped all over themselves to sing Ishiguro’s prose any kind of praise. Despite my poor initial outing with Ishiguro, I felt I needed to try something else by him before banishing him from my reading life.  I decided I might as well try his, ostensibly, best-known novel, the one that actually won the Booker, The Remains of the Day (which I found at McKay’s for the hefty price of 75¢). I’m so glad I did. The Remains of the Day is the story of Stevens, an aging butler who had the privilege of working in one of England’s finest houses – that of Lord Darlington - back in the glory days of butling and house staffs.  The story moves back in forth in time, with present-day Stevens taking a cross-country trip to visit the former housekeeper, Miss Kenton who has recently left her husband.  This journey prompts Stevens to reminisce about his time serving Lord Darlington over the years, while also rehashing his relationship with Miss Kenton.  Through these flashbacks, he also spends a good deal of time ruminating on issues of dignity and what makes a butler truly great.  Unfortunately, as Stevens revisits his past, doubts about the worthiness and respectability of his former employer begin to creep into his mind, and Stevens must finally take stock of what he has made of his life. I loved this novel so much.  It was quiet and gentle, slowly building to a resolution that I found utterly devastating.  While reading, it was hard to articulate why exactly I found the story so engrossing as it’s certainly not a conventional page-turner by any means, but I was absolutely riveted and hated to put the book down.  It was also one of those books where I grew increasingly trepidatious as the end drew near, as I just really didn’t want it to end.  I was mesmerized by the storytelling that seamlessly slipped between past and present narratives, and I felt drawn to Stevens, tragic as he was for his loyalty and unerring deference to his higher principles.  Also, I know I've really been a sucker for endings lately, but I have to the last two chapters of this book were so filled with longing and remorse that they made me want to weep. I realize that Ishiguro moved to England when he was relatively young so the fact that he so effectively embodies a white, elderly servant who is so obviously British shouldn’t necessarily be such a shock to the system, but the authenticity of the narrative is of such a quality that it was actually kind of creepy.  There are few authorial voices that I can think of who so effectively create a believable person on the page as Ishiguro has done with Stevens.  That in and of itself would be reason enough to be impressed with this novel. But the writing.  So lovely.  So moving.  Reading it, I knew I was in the hands of a master, for truly writing like that found in The Remains of the Day can only be called masterful.  Ironically, reading this book made my estimation of Never Let Me Go plummet even further, as it was so beneath the caliber of what Ishiguro does here.  In comparison, that book looks even more hackneyed and uninspired, and it baffles me how someone who could write something as skilled as this novel could then go and write that.  My advice is if you loved Never Let Me Go, or even if you didn’t, you ought to read this book as it is infinitely better.  The topics addressed may not be as “sexy” and controversial, but this novel is so much richer and far more thoughtful, and ultimately more human.  Unquestioningly it deserved the Booker the year it was published, because not only is it one of the best Booker winners I’ve had the pleasure of reading, it’s also simply one of the best books I’ve ever read. I was a non-believer before I found this novel, but now I look forward eagerly to reading more novels by Ishiguro in the future.  I can only hope that they have a fraction of the grace and light-touch this novel had.  Reading it was a joy and a gift, and I know it is one I will re-read for many years to come. Any Ishiguro fans out there?  What would you recommend trying next?  I’m thinking of A Pale View of HillsRating: 5 out of 5

32 Comments

  1. 02/03/2010

    It’s been years since I’ve read it but I loved this one! Movie is great too!

  2. I haven’t read any of his books yet, but have quite a few in my TBR pile. I really should get to one soon – especially if you give it 5 stars!

  3. 02/03/2010

    I haven’t read any Ishiguro beyond the two you’ve read, both of which I enjoyed but didn’t adore, but I want to pipe in a recommend the movie version of this one. It’s one of my all-time favorite movies. (In fact, it’s possible I didn’t adore the book because the movie was so, so good.)

  4. 02/03/2010

    WOW. it sounds so good. Adding to my list now.

  5. 02/03/2010

    I adore this book! It’s one of my favorites; it just astonished me on my first read and I wanted to read it again immediately. Unfortunately I’ve not found that any other book by Ishiguro matches up to it, but I have enjoyed the rest of his work. I’ve read all but The Unconsoled.

  6. 02/03/2010

    I wouldn’t recommend The Unconsoled, which was the first book by Ishiguro I read and was one of the worst books I’ve ever read. I hated it. Infact, when I read Never Let Me Go last year, it was to give him a second chance. I was very meh about it – and I didn’t think there were twists; I knew the “twist” about 5 pages into the book and thought everyone was supposed to; didn’t realize it was a spoiler when I talked about it in my summary. But over time it stayed with me and I grew to love the book. I’m not sure how that happened. I need to try to read this one.

  7. 02/03/2010

    @ Mrs.B: So glad to hear you enjoyed it too! Haven’t seen the movie, but am definitely intrigued now!
     
    @ Jackie: This might be a quieter novel than you generally like, but I still think you would appreciate it! I’m by no means an Ishiguro expert but I can’t imagine any of his other books being better than this one.
     
    @ Teresa: I haven’t seen the movie, but I think Tony has… but all he had to say on the subject is that it is long! 😉 I have to say, I have a hard time imagining how a film could surpass this book, so the fact that you liked it so much definitely has piqued my interest!
     
    @ Rebecca: It was *SO* good! I’m so glad I gave Ishiguro another chance.
     
    @ Meghan: You’re right, there’s something very astonishing about the book, and I feel like I’m in a small slump now because all other books seem to pale in comparison to it. I’m not surprised to hear you didn’t think the rest of his books were as good as this one, because how could they? 😀
     
    @ Amanda: Duly noted: avoid The Unconsoled! 😉 Also, some books do grow on me with time (like Atonement), but Never Let Me Go certainly did not! 😉

  8. 02/03/2010

    Yay! I super loved this book, too. And you know we feel the same about Never Let Me Go, although, because I love Ishiguro so much, I have learnt to forgive him the disappointment of that one.. and realize that Kathy’s voice was meant to be wooden and stifled and hackneyed, if you know what I mean?

    Re: The Unconsoled, it was also my first Ishiguro and was way over my head as I was barely out of my teens then and not as experienced a reader, but, I don’t know, the strangeness of it felt brilliant and familiar (like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland). I plan to reread it.. I don’t remember anything about it but that it was odd and that I really liked it. But I can understand how some readers who want a straightforward storyline might not like it.

    Anyway, there isn’t an Ishiguro I didn’t love yet (yes, Never Let Me Go really grew on me).

    I agree about that hideous cover. When I read this, it was a movie tie-in cover that my sister’s friend lent her. And then when I bought my own copy to keep, opted for the Faber&Faber, which looks so much nicer.

  9. 02/03/2010

    This was a really awesome review! As you know, I did like Never Let Me Go, but I have also heard that this book is far better and that the language he uses and the story he tells are both very potent. I am really looking forward to reading this one now, and am so glad to hear that it will be a great read. As far as his other books go, I thought A Pale View of the Hills was a very interesting book. I read it a few years ago, and it was the kind of book that made me sit and wonder about it after I had turned the last page. The storytelling in it felt a little impersonal at first, and I wasn’t at all sure how everything would fit together, but after I finished it, I wanted to talk about it to anyone who had read it. Having only read one other by him, I am not sure where it would fall among his other works, but I thought it was a pretty good read. I will be interested in hearing what you think of it if you do read it.

  10. 02/03/2010

    Count me as one of those heaping praise on Never Let Me Go – I thought it was wonderful. Either way, he’s a great writer

  11. mee
    02/03/2010

    Ishiguro is one of the authors on my list that I plan to read everything by. I’m not surprised you found this masterful, as many people do. I have only read 2 of his books: Never Let Me Go (which I know has got mixed reviews) and When We Were Orphans. I don’t recommend you read Orphans next. I thought the writing was better than Never Let Me Go but the plot was a bit weak. I have A Pale View of Hills on my shelf. Would love to read the Remains of the Day and the Unconsoled.

  12. 02/03/2010

    @ claire: I agree that Ishiguro probably wrote Kathy with a very specific intention in mind, I just feel like it was somewhat unsuccessful. But I do know what he was getting at.
    I am just so SO glad that I loved this one. It really was a wonderful read, and I really just wish I didn’t have such a hideous copy! I looked at The Book Depository, but it appears they have the same version, so I am doomed!
    Also, I find your thoughts on The Unconsoled so intriguing! We all know that I will probably be guided by what I can find at McKay’s, but I must say your feelings towards it have certainly made me reconsider NOT reading it! 😉
     
    @ zibilee: I recall you enjoying Never Let Me Go. I don’t think it was an entirely unsuccessful novel – there were elements of it that I thought quite compelling – but overall I felt it was kind of clunky and overly manipulative. That said, I can see why others like it, it’s just not really my cup of tea.
    But I’m so glad to hear that you enjoyed A Pale View of Hills! Of all the synopses I’ve read of Ishiguro’s other novels, I think it’s the one that intrigues me most.
     
    @ Lorin: Thanks for commenting! I fully realized that I was in the minority in terms of my dislike of NLMG, as obviously loads of others found a lot there to value. I really think that anyone who enjoyed that novel will likely enjoy this a good deal because I really think the writing and storytelling here is a cut above much other literature. But diversity is one of the great things about books – a book that does nothing for me is sure to please someone else! 😉
     
    @ mee: So glad to hear you’re an Ishiguro fan! I vaguely recall reading reviews of Orphans when it came out and I thought they weren’t overwhelmingly effusive… I’ll probably take your advice and wait until I’ve read some others before reading that one.

  13. 02/04/2010

    I have read wonderful reviews of this book over the past few months. I was fortunate to find a copy on the clearance rack at the local bookstore, but have yet to read it for myself. It looks like I need to make that more of a priority.

  14. 02/04/2010

    Steph, The Remains of the Day has remained my favorite of all Ishiguro’s works. I just love the writing style with which he unfolds the story of Stevens, who is a butler for a prestigious house all his adult life. The writing is just graceful and elegant, as Stevens reflects upon his life serving the duties of a butler with dignity.

  15. 02/05/2010

    @ Molly: I love when I manage to get amazing books for next to nothing – it’s really like finding a treasure! I hope you enjoy this one when you get to it!
     
    @ Matt: I like your wording: “graceful and elegant”. That’s exactly how I would describe this book!

  16. 02/05/2010

    I have yet to read Kashiguro and feel a bit left out in the blogosphere. I know I’ll get around to it eventually! Glad you enjoyed his second novel more than the first one you read.

  17. 02/05/2010

    I loved Remains of the Day, and I’m so glad you loved it too. I also loved Never Let Me Go, so we don’t quite see eye to eye here, but that’s okay 🙂 I’ve read Pale View of the Hills and liked it, although not as much as the other two. I’ve heard good things about The Unconsoled, but haven’t gotten to it yet.

  18. 02/06/2010

    I saw the movie years ago, but I’ve forgotten the ending, so I might be up for reading this one. I enjoyed Never Let Me Go, but I found the writing a bit simple, so I’d like to read something by Ishiguro with a bit more oomph to it.

  19. I haven’t read any Ishiguro yet but always intended to, especially now that I have read this glowing review. I am a firm believer of giving writers a second chance and not judging them solely on one book.

  20. 02/07/2010

    @ Kathleen: Well, this wasn’t my first Ishiguro, but I felt a bit left out too because the one I had read was one I didn’t really care for but everyone else seemed to love! I hope that you get to read this one some day!
     
    @ Dorothy: I’m glad I finally get the Ishiguro hype! I just found this book so rich and rewarding… now I”m especially intrigued about The Unconsoled, since it seems to be a pretty divisive novel!
     
    @ softdrink: This was really one of those books that was just about luxuriating in the experience and appreciating the journey. I thought the ending was brilliant, but the entire book was breathtaking!
     
    @ Claire: I really think you would love this book! And you’re right that I need to be more open-minded about giving writers a second chance. Or maybe I need to me more discerning about which books of an author I try first?

  21. 02/08/2010

    Sorry to hear that Never Let me Go didn’t work for you. I am a huge KI fan. I read Remains of the Day first and quite liked it, but never really got the hype. I then read Never Let me Go, and it just blew me away.

    I suppose reading KI is like an acquired taste? You could also try Artist of the Floating World. It is interesting in that, this is essentially a Japanese story unlike the others

  22. 02/08/2010

    Very interesting, I had the opposite impression. I loved Never Let Me Go and then read When We Were Orphans which did not work at all for me. SO I picked up Remains of the Day and have decided that Ishiguro’s style is one that only worked the one/first time. DO SEE THE FILM! – it is excellent.

  23. 02/08/2010

    @ Nish: Maybe with each Ishiguro novel I will come to like him more and more… I will be curious to see!
     
    @ Care: Your thoughts on Ishiguro’s style are really interesting – I do see similarities between this novel and NLMG, but I felt like this novel was brimming with emotion whereas NLMG just left me so cold. I guess I found that his style didn’t work for me the first time, but it did the second!

  24. 02/08/2010

    I have always meant to read this and I even have a nice hardbound copy. I’ll get to it – I have his Nocturnes as well. But I’ve read Never Let Me Go (which I loved) and An Artist of the Floating World (also really loved). I admire his writing quite a bit.

  25. 02/10/2010

    Up until a few months ago, I had three Ishiguro books on my shelves–he was someone I’d keep picking up, meaning to read him “for later.” That time never came, and I sold those books to people who’d like them. I just never got around to staying with those books whenever I’d creak them open.

    I know I’m missing out, haha, but he and I just don’t meld. Maybe someday. Maybe. Maybe one book. I’ll certainly try.

  26. Kay
    02/12/2010

    Great review Steph. I read “Never let me go” last summer, and like Amanda I wasn’t impressed by it, but it grew on me over time and became one of my favorite books of the year. I would be curious to read “The remains of the day” and see whether I like it more or not!

  27. 02/12/2010

    Fabulous review – I’m so glad you loved this book! As you know, I did like Never Let Me Go, but I do prefer Remains of the Day. It’s one of my all-time favourites, in fact. Sadly, those two are the only ones I’ve read, so I can’t recommend where to go next.

  28. 02/12/2010

    @ verbivore: Before reading this one, I was not all that interested in reading Ishiguro’s back catalog… but now! I am craving him! I know that on our next visit to McKay’s I’ll snatch up anything by him that they happen to have! 😉
     
    @ sasha: It’s so funny that you bought so many books by him but never tried any of them! 😉 Ah well, I fully believe that there’s a right time and place for books, and maybe you just haven’t found the right time for Ishiguro! It seems like I hadn’t until this year!
     
    @ Kay: There were so many things I could have loved about NLMG on paper (I love dystopian fiction, for instance!) but in the end, I was so underwhelmed! I wish it had grown on me, but it didn’t! But this one was a winner right from the start! I hope you do get the chance to try it!
     
    @ Nymeth: I think this is one of my all-time favorites now too! I’m sure I’ll be guided by what I can get my hands on at the used-bookstore, but I have to say that I’m really excited to read more Ishiguro now!

  29. […] reviewed by Steph & Tony Investigate! | […]

  30. 02/24/2011

    Great review, Steph. And you’ve sparked excellent comments. I am making it a goal to read both The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go this year. The only question is which one I should read first. I note that several people have preferred the second Ishiguro they read, rather than the first. Where should I begin?

  31. 02/24/2011

    @ Kerry: I’ve only read the two Ishiguros that I mention in this review (this one and Never Let Me Go) and I pretty much had polar opposite reactions to them! I am thinking that if you are planning to read two Ishiguros anyway (based on your 2nd book is better enjoyed theory), then maybe start with this and then try Never Let Me Go (or something else!). Just because this book is so good and I think that NLMG will need all the help it can get! 😀

  32. […] Steph and tony investigate:  The topics addressed may not be as “sexy” and controversial, but this novel is so much richer and far more thoughtful, and ultimately more human.  Unquestioningly it deserved the Booker the year it was published, because not only is it one of the best Booker winners I’ve had the pleasure of reading, it’s also simply one of the best books I’ve ever read. […]

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