Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki in 1954 and moved to the UK in 1960. He studied English and Philosophy at University of Kent and eventually went on to complete a Master’s in Creative Writing in 1980 at the University of East Anglia. His thesis became his debut novel, A Pale View of Hills, which was favourably received. Four years later he wrote An Artist of the Floating World, which was shortlisted, or nominated, for the Booker Prize, and in 1989 he won the same prize for his novel The Remains of the Day. The Unconsoled came in 1995 and, perhaps unable to fill the shoes of his previous work, reviews claimed it was difficult and incomprehensible. In 2000 he released When We Were Orphans and despite the fact it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Ishiguro has said it was his “weakest work.” Never Let Me Go was his greatest achievement – it was a novel so subtle in its depiction of human nature and so difficult to assign a genre that it warrants several rereads to grasp its immensity. Nocturnes, Ishiguro’s first collection of short fiction, followed in 2009. His latest novel, The Buried Giant, breaks into the world of fantasy.
Ishiguro is one of the most celebrated British authors of our time; he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017 and his books are consistently nominated for noteworthy prizes. He focuses largely on the past and, though many of his novels lack a clear resolution, he has an unmatched gift for original story-telling.
Although many would argue that The Remains of the Day is better than Never Let Me Go, I disagree. This novel was nominated for The Booker Prize in 2005 and was also named Time Magazine’s Best Novel of 2005. Just last year, The Guardian ranked it as the 4th best novel of the 21st century. Ishiguro dips his toes into the realm of dystopian fiction in the story of thirty-one-year-old carer Kathy H. set in 1990s Britain. From the beginning, something is clearly amiss – Kathy mentions no family or surname, but her talk of “donors” and “completions” is alarming for the reader, more so because it is commonplace to Kathy. She reminisces about her time at Hailsham, a boarding school where she grew up with friends Ruth and Tommy, and the strangely intimate relationship she had with both. It becomes clear that the children at Hailsham are not like other children, and the revelation behind what makes them different is devastating. This novel is heart-breaking and thought-provoking and will stay with you long after you turn the final page.
Ishiguro’s third novel The Remains of the Day won The Booker Prize for Fiction. It was also made into a film in 1993 with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, which earned eight Oscar nominations. Set in 1956, the novel focuses on Stephen who has worked as a butler at Darlington House for several decades. In the wake of his master’s death, he sets out to take his first proper holiday. Stephen decides to visit Miss Keaton, the Darlington House’s ex-housekeeper, though it’s been twenty years since they last saw each other. On Stephen’s journey, he recalls his long servitude to the house, his late father who was also a butler, and words left unsaid between him and Miss Keaton. Although he is extremely proud of his profession, the world is moving on from the norm of large houses with servants, and Stephen must figure out how his way of life will evolve with everything else. There’s much more to this novel than what appears on the surface, which is often the case with Ishiguro. Although it is slow and subtle, this novel is a masterpiece of storytelling and worthy of its Booker Prize win.
Ishiguro’s first novel began as a thesis for his Master of Arts degree in Creative Writing, which he earned in 1980. It follows a Japanese woman named Etsuko living in England whose eldest daughter, Keiko, recently committed suicide. She recalls how she came to live in Britain and the effect the move had on her daughter. Given Keiko’s death, much of what Etsuko remembers is disturbing. The novel has themes of breaking free; Etsuko flees Nagasaki to live in England and begin a new life with a new man, but at what expense? As Etsuko’s memories are set in Nagasaki in the 1950s, the atomic bomb plays a role in the story. This celebrated debut intrigued readers for what would come next from Ishiguro.
As with A Pale View of Hills, much of this story is set in post-war Nagasaki. The story is told retrospectively through Masuji Ono, a painter. Ono tells the story of how his work reflects the political climate of the time (before WWII) as he invests more into his painting and distances himself from the teachings of his previous master. Throughout the novel, Ono is an unreliable narrator – whether that is due to him being purposely dishonest or because his memories are inconsistent is up to the reader to decide, but it makes for an interesting read. The pinnacle focus of this novel is the negotiation of marriage for Ono’s daughter, Noriko, a key depiction of changing values in Japan at the time. An Artist of the Floating World was Ishiguro’s first novel nominated for the Booker Prize, and it would not be the last. It is often overshadowed by The Remains of the Day, which won the Booker Prize and tells a similar story of a damaged society trying to rebuild.
Ishiguro released the short story collection Nocturnes in 2009 after the tremendous success of Never Let Me Go. It was his first collection of short fiction and consisted of five stories: “Crooner” is about an American singer living in Venice; “Come Rain or Come Shine” explores the difficulties of a married couple; “Malvern Hills” concentrates on a failing musician and his withdrawal into the English countryside; “Nocturne” is about a man recovering from surgery who becomes involved with an American woman; and finally “Cellists” focuses on two cellists and their relationship. Each story, as the by-line of the collection suggests, involves “Music and Nightfall.” They connect characters through the theme of talented people who are washed up and looking for purpose. Ishiguro received dramatically mixed reviews on forums such as Good Reads for these stories. Unlike other work by Ishiguro, Nocturnes was praised for its humour; much of his other books are far too serious to make room for comedy. However, whether you enjoy short fiction or not, this collection is atmospheric and stunningly written, and it will be worth the read.
This is the third of Ishiguro’s novels shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. When We Were Orphans is a detective story, a genre he had not previously explored. It tells of Englishman Christopher Banks who grew up in Shanghai. When ten-year-old Christopher’s parents disappeared, he was sent to live with his aunt in England. Now an adult, Banks wishes to know what happened to his parents, and as a private investigator, he believes he has the means to achieve this. He returns to China in 1937, convinced he will be able to find them. The theme of the novel is characteristic of many of Ishiguro’s works – the past holds the key to something in the future. His protagonists are often locked into a traumatic childhood memory, rummaging through their pasts to make sense of their present, and this often leads them to unhappiness. While the Booker nomination suggested it held the same merit as An Artist on Floating Hills or The Remains of the Day, other critics reviewed it as “lacking colour,” and that for a detective story, it was too boring to be worthy of the genre. Nevertheless, the style and form of Ishiguro’s writing is breath-taking, even if the story lacks intensity.
In 2015, Ishiguro finally published The Buried Giant after working on the novel for ten years. He jumped one step past the scope of Never Let Me Go and dove fully into fantasy with this story about the Britons and Saxons in the aftermath of King Arthur’s death. Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple, live in this post-Arthur world with a strain of amnesia called The Mist. Despite the holes in their memories, they decide to search for a son they are convinced they have. The novel is unlike Ishiguro’s other work, but it was favourably reviewed since it resembled Game of Thrones at the height of the show’s popularity. It taps into well-known British folklore, including Sir Gawain, Querig and a cast of ogres, dragons and other monsters. Ishiguro resists the idea of genre, and this is the reason The Buried Giant divided his fans who either loved or hated the book.
The story is about Mr. Ryder, a pianist who travels to an undisclosed European town to perform in a concert. As the novel progresses, Mr. Ryder wonders what exactly brought him to town as the townspeople act as though he is there for their own personal needs. The pianist becomes claustrophobic and experiences a strange sense of déjà vu despite originally thinking he had never been to this town. The novel is surreal and abstract – it is written as a stream of consciousness as Mr. Ryder enters a dream-like state. Many readers were not happy with this experimental novel after the success of The Remains of the Day. At the time of its release, The Unconsoled did not fare well with critics. This may have been because it followed The Remains of the Day, and the hype around Ishiguro and his writing was still high from six years prior. It was appreciated more in later years, even making it to third place of a list called “Best British, Irish and Commonwealth novels between 1980 and 2005.” If you are a fan of Ishiguro, this book will be different from what you’re used to, but still a great read.