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Set in post war England The Remains of the Day is a pathos laden journey through a dying mode of life. The ageing Stevens is encouraged to take a road journey by his new American employer; this in itself a sign of the changing times. Stevens takes his employer up on his offer, which, given the inappropriateness (for Stevens) of such an act, enlightens us to the state of his mind. Stevens has persuaded himself that the trip is actually an errand for his employer, as he believes a letter from an old employee at the hall, Miss Kenton, hints at her wish to return to service.

The road trip is a journey into Steven’s past and we begin to understand his world, the attraction between him and Miss Kenton that he would never explicitly realise, as it was incompatible with his sense of ‘dignity’, necessary for a ‘great’ butler. And we realise how this is tied up with his father – in Stevens’ view – a ‘great’ butler, and his death, where Stevens carried on serving at an important dinner for his employer, as this is what dignity required of him. And keeping that dignity meant he had to believe in his employer – even when he appeared to be a Nazi sympathiser and dismissed servants for being Jewish, on the eve of the Second World War. It is only now, with the same errors creeping into his work as crept into his Father’s as he neared his end, that Stevens can bring himself to question his path in life and whether he has in fact kept his dignity and been great.

But the road trip is not wasted and at the end Stevens does achieve greatness through self-awareness, selflessness and the ability to follow his chosen path. What more could any of us do?

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I’d never read Boyd before and I’m not sure that I will do again. It’s not that this isn’t a good book, it is, it’s just that I’m not sure Boyd’s particular brand of dark humour really suits me. The humour got me through this book, and through the, many, tragic events that unfold in it but it also grated with me. It seemed to bring an unbearable levity to events that warranted a more searching approach – but maybe that was just me.

Saying that there wasn’t a lot of war in this book. There was a lot talk about people and around people who were involved with the African part of the war, but a lack of focus on the actual events themselves: the rationale behind them or their contribution to the wider ‘Great’ War. But then that was the point: to the characters involved it seemed like their war was just that – their war.  There was no sense of coherence and purpose, and in the end that is the book’s central theme – the war was incomprehensible and random but still capable despite, or maybe because, of destroying and utterly unravelling lives and relationships.

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