Audible version, narrated by Dominic West.
I picked this up on a whim because I saw it had good reviews and was hailed as a modern classic, though I had honestly never heard of the book or the writer. The fact that Dominic West was reading it may also have swayed me – that man has a fantastic voice, and he narrated this one excellently.
There isn’t really a story as such. It’s a meandering tale told through the eyes of Mr Steven’s, an old world butler, as he travels the English countryside. The year is 1956, though Stevens mostly reminisces about working for his previous master, Lord Darlington, between the first and second world war. In particular his memories centre around Miss Kensington, the previous housekeeper who he is now on his way to visit, to see if he might persuade her to take up her old post once again.
One quite quickly gets the idea that Stevens may have reasons beyond the professional for wishing to pay Miss Kensington a visit, but the story is so fantastically layered that all the details of it are not laid out until the very end. And even then it rings more strongly of words never said and actions never taken.
Stevens strikes me as an awkward sort of fellow, but that is at least partly because he is from a different time. Though even in his own memories he comes across as very stiff and too “proper”. He is overly preoccupied with the dignity that great butlers must strive to achieve, and he is at the time the story takes place probably a little bit lost. The world has gone and changed around him, he’s serving a nouveau riche American gentleman rather than his distinguished Lord Darlington, and seems every bit the fish out of water. His new master wishes him to partake in banter – can you imagine the horror?
It’s difficult to explain why exactly this book is so wonderful. It’s a book of absence. The absence of action, the absence of making choices, the absence of saying things outright. And it is absolutely beautifully written. It is so rich and layered it feels like you’ve been given a gorgeously wrapped present, and when you unwrap a layer there’s another just as ornate underneath it. And when you finally get to the centre, you’re not even sure what the gift really is, but you’re left with this feeling of awe. Of sadness, and bittersweetness.
It’s not for those who demand actions, but those who enjoy a slow drive through the English countryside, and the beauty of language.
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