This was an extremely depressing but brilliantly performed audiobook that I could not listen to without thinking of Downton Abbey. It alternates between Stephens, the long-time butler of Darlington Hall taking a road trip through England and Stephens thinking about his past and about Miss Kenton, a housekeeper he used to work with.
Stephens’ memories are not in complete chronological order, so the journey of Stephens and Miss Kenton from antagonists to doting friends to estranged friends to out-of-touch former confidants was implied subtly, making it all the more realistic. Stephens’ memories of his former employer Lord Darlington were treated in a similarly subtle manner. You suspect something distasteful happened to disgrace Lord Darlington, but the truth comes out begrudgingly in small pieces.
I loved, and disliked, the character of Stephens. I loved how well he was drawn by Ishiguro. I loved the literary brilliance of using this deeply, traditionally English sentiment of decency and dignity and decorum to disguise the fact that Stephens is basically a cowardly liar who lies so much he doesn’t even know he’s lying to himself. He lies about his feelings about Lord Darlington, he lies about the morality of Lord Darlington’s actions, he lies about the fact that he lied about Lord Darlington, and he lies about why he did so.
He lies about his feelings about Miss Kenton as well. For example, when Miss Kenton tells him she’s going to get married, he doesn’t say he is upset, nor does he say anything rude, but later Miss Kenton says something about how he’s banging pots and pans and stomping around childishly, something he denies. (Mr. Spock is more in touch with his emotions than this guy.) Even at the end, when Stephens does really finally show some emotion, he says nothing about the fact that he’s crying, merely relates the dialogue of the person with him, offering him a handkerchief.
I found Stephens’ father, and Stephens’ relationship with his father, the saddest part of the book. That Stephens felt it was more important to pour wine at a stupid party than be at his father’s deathbed–and that he (probably rightly) thought his father would agree with this decision–throws the whole servant’s duty thing in an ugly harsh light. This was the scene at which I felt the most pity for him, and also the most contempt.
I’m giving this four stars rather than three not because I really enjoyed it (it was too depressing to say I really enjoyed it) but because the characters were so brilliantly done. It would be a great book club book, because it discusses obliquely a lot of notions of class which are more relevant today than most Americans care to acknowledge.