Stevens, the narrator, is an aging butler writing to an unknown audience in the mid ‘50s in England. He is a man who only possesses his work and doesn’t consider a life outside of being a butler and thoughts of improvement in his vocation are constantly on his mind. The occasion for his writing is the potential return of Miss Kenton, who he worked with some several decades previous.
Instead of having an emotional core (a core that is built around emotions, that is) this is a book that is built on the emotional continence of its narrator. In the honesty of Stevens’s narration Ishiguro allows us to see Stevens better than he sees himself. We see him when he’s guarded and feel the subtle communication in movements and looks that he misses in his reminiscence. He admires understatement and though taken with Miss Kenton he is too guarded to dignify the thought.
A key aspect of the book is a discussion of dignity; what it is and how it is applied to the work of a butler. And here we find, in the final analysis, that Stevens believes that showing emotions is undignified. Composure is used as a barrier by him to avoid messy things like emotions, and once all the planning and running of a world-class household is through there is little room for joy.
In this milieu the novel unfolds slowly and contains many small but surprising revelations: about Stevens, his employers, Miss Kenton, the life of professional servitude, and the desire for human warmth. A joy to read and highly recommended.