Four stars, read in October 2017.
The Remains of the Day is absolutely masterful. I was constantly impressed by the subtlety, the way the protagonist’s voice is so careful and forthcoming that it didn’t occur to me to question his accuracy, until suddenly the perspective would widen and I’d realize what he’d been leaving out.
Mr. Stevens is the former butler of a great British house, keeping a diary on his way to see someone he hasn’t seen for many years. Frequently within his present-day musings he delves into memories of the time leading up to World War II. We learn, gradually, that the man he worked for—someone our protagonist believes to be a great man who played an important role in history—was in fact involved, but on the wrong side of the war. Partly it’s that Mr. Stevens is always talking about something else when these memories arise, so the focus is elsewhere and we have to piece things together on our own. But at the same time, it was interesting to notice my reactions to the new information, how at first I’d assume that there must be more to the story before having to accept that it actually was what I thought it was. When someone is presented to you first as a sympathetic character, it’s hard to allow new information to change your perception; you try for a long time to fit the evidence into the shape you’d already assumed the story would take, before you realize it’s your idea of the shape that was wrong.
Mr. Stevens thinks deeply about his role in society, examining significant changes to the British class system that occurred throughout the twentieth century through the lens of his own personal history. With beautiful writing and plenty of gently amusing moments, this book is a thoughtful exploration of morality, dignity, and democracy, tucked into the quiet road-trip musings of a man on his way to see an old friend.
Read-alikes: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson
Breathing Lessons, by Anne Tyler