Stories can be told in many ways, say with an omniscient narrator or first person narrator. Authors have had success experimenting with this, for example with George RR Martin choosing to have each chapter narrated by a different character. In The Remains of the Day we see a butler who’s a reserved man, rarely sharing his thoughts or feelings with anyone, tell us a story while taking us into his confidence. Every interaction in the book occurs in the past, either decades previously or just a minutes before he relates it to us and so we experience the entire tale as he chooses to relate it. He tries to be frank with us, but upon scrutiny you realise that he has that most human of foibles - self deception. He contradicts himself as he tells us the story of his life, afraid that we might judge him, or his performance of his duties or worst of all, his employer.
I think the author has done a fantastic job to create such a character. He’s not relatable in the traditional sense, meaning a blank canvas that any reader can imagine being in the shoes of. Examples of such characters are Bilbo Baggins, Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, where the reader can experience an adventure first hand, as if we’re the one killing bad guys and Saving The World. In contrast, the butler in this book is an old man who spent his entire life polishing silver, serving drinks, managing staff, all the while telling himself that he was doing something meaningful. Most people I know feel they’re doing the same, or aspire to it. So when the butler pauses in the twilight of his career, wondering if he made an impact on the world, wondering if he made the right decisions, that’s a worry I can relate to, even if I look, speak and act nothing like the butler.
But its not all about the man. The author also speaks of class distinctions and the role they play in society. The butler believes firmly that everyone has their place, that only a few people have the ability to make a mark on the world. The rest of us must remain content with doing our ordinary jobs as best as we can, because even if we had an opinion its likely that we’re incorrect. When you consider it, this argument makes you think about democracy and why it works.
This is a masterwork, and I see Kazuo Ishiguro achieving reknown for his talents. No doubt a prize or two would be awarded for this.
As for recommending it, I’m not sure if most people would enjoy it. There’s very little in the way of action, just an interesting man having a conversation with you. If that sounds compelling, you should pick it up.