This is the story of Stevens, a butler who served the Lord of a grand English house during the fading days of the British empire. In the 1950s Stevens remains at the house, but everything else has changed. Lord Darlington has died, the final years of his life marred by scandal and disappointment. The house has been purchased by an American businessman, most of its rooms are closed down, and the former staff of dozens of servants has been reduced to a skeleton crew of four. Stevens finds himself alone and friendless, as he has lost touch with the servants whose companionship and conversation helped him to define himself.
Mr Farraday, Stevens's new employer, invites his butler to take his car and go off for a week during Farraday's absence. Stevens is able to take his first holiday ever, which gives him time to look back on his life's work. The novel begins as Stevens is about to set out on this trip. The powerful first-person voice of this novel asserts itself from the first pages, and we get a glimpse into the mind of a man who has dedicated his entire self to the goal of being a perfect butler. As the story unfolds, we begin to see in Stevens the hollow shell of a man who, never having allowed himself to feel anything, having spent his entire life becoming the embodiment of "dignity", is trying to come to terms with his past. The result is a magnificent, deftly told tale. Though much is told through the memories and narrative of Mr Stevens, the real story reveals itself through subtext and implication. Many questions are suggested: Where does the work of a servant end and his own life begin? How can a person whose life revolves around being anonymous and unassuming express his own feelings and beliefs? What happens when he doesn't acknowledge those emotions? Does a servant have the responsibility to evaluate and develop opinions on his employer's behaviour and political activities? Yet Ishiguro does not provide answers to the questions, so I think I'll be pondering the implications of this novel long after having closed the book.