Stevens, the long-serving butler to Lord Darlington who prides himself on his professionalism and stoicism, receives an unexpected letter from a former colleague, Mrs. Benn, which compels him to go to meet her where she lives in the country. Their meeting and subsequent conversations leads Stevens to re-examine what he has assumed to be a solid mental foundation so far.
Slow and steady, the story takes you along with itself, making you introspect along with Stevens as he looks back over the course of his life and the people in it. It somehow makes you question the choice of people you bring into your life and the influence they have, which is blurred, liquid and cannot be defined. The narrative is simple and linear, on its face it is simply a self-proclaimed professional butler looking back at the life and times of being himself, and those memories are the only reason for the otherwise linear plot to keep branching off.
The language is courtly, reserved and old-fashioned. It is Stevens the butler talking to you about his apprehensions, misgivings and professional expectations with serene, old-fashioned stolidity. For him, there is no other way to do things, every action must adhere to the strict standards he sets for himself, and any deviation is justly condemned.
It is perhaps in the climax, the ultimate meeting with the writer of the letter that brings back the old times, that the beauty of the story and of Ishiguro’s writing lies. It is in the single, most significant conversation between Stevens and Mrs. Benn that Ishiguro shows the futility of trying to bend circumstances to one’s will, or indeed, ruminating on what might have been long after it has passed. There is nothing to be gained by simply continuing to look backwards. When the day is ending and evening comes, you find yourself suddenly helpless, for all that remains are the ends of the day. But then, for some people, the end is the most beautiful part because it is then that they lie back, fulfilled, for the day has been left behind and one has only to look forward.