I feel like I have been writing about Kazuo Ishiguro a lot lately. Most of it positive and glowing. I might not have said it in as many words before, but I think it should be pretty obvious to readers of Brick and Rope - Ishiguro is one of my favorite authors of all time.
Which is why writing a review of Nocturnes, his latest book, isn't the easiest task. To retain a sense of balance, and a modicum of credibility in my readers' eyes, I feel compelled to pick some nits with the writing, come up with some broad criticisms ... something to make me sound less fawning, something to make the review more ... shall we say, spicy. But here is the deal - I loved the darn book! What can I say? The guy really is that good.
Nocturnes is Ishiguro's first collection of short stories. Over the last 27 years, Ishiguro has given us six glorious novels. Now, he tries his hand here at five loosely connected stories 'of music and nighttime'. Different form, same result. The man's touch continues to be exquisite.
A central component of all five stories here is music, and musicians. Not very varied kind of music either. It is a 'sort of croony, nostalgia music' that makes for a mellow tune that plays softly on, as the stories play out against the sepia tinted visual background of every Ishiguro.
Ishiguro stories are inevitably tales of the past, of memories, of history catching up in strange ways. Nocturnes is no different. In that sense, the sepia tone in which I tend to see his books, is still relevant. The centrality of music is somewhat new, though not entirely so - the protagonist (if you can call him that) in The Unconsoled was after all a classical pianist. And in some way, you almost expect someone of Ishiguro's sensibilities to be a connoisseur of music.
The other common thread through the stories is one of the constant key strengths of Ishiguro as an author - his grasp of emotional nuance. He has as fine and well-tuned an emotional sensitivity as any writer I have read. This sensitivity is on full display in Nocturnes. Each story is, at its heart, about an emotional state of the narrator (all of the five stories are narrated in the first person). Each story is about a relationship between people that is based on a slightly off-kilter emotional foundation. There is the relationship of an aging cellist with his wife, that has entered its night-time for a reason that is rational in an unhinged sort of way. There is the couple who seem to be trying to get past the night-time of their relationship by joint berating of an old friend. There is the teacher who is a 'virtuoso' that her cello student has never heard of. Each is in some ways a single indescribable emotional nuance, stretched to its extreme.
Finally of course, like in all Ishiguros, there is loss. Not for nothing are these called stories 'of music and nighttime'. The night-time of relationships, stages of life, beliefs - these are a constant companion here.
Nocturnes is bookended by two stories set in Venice. We start with a guitarist and a singer in the piazza and end with a Cello player and his teacher there again. The music and the setting reminded me in part of Vikram Seth's An Equal Music, though the similarities are largely superficial. The stories in general resonate with Ishiguros other works but aren't necessarily reminiscent of any single work of his. One of the stories (Come rain or come shine) reminded me of The Unconsoled. The unreliable narrator that Ishiguro has mastered over the years is best on display in Malvern Hills.
Some have called these stories 'interconnected'. Don't believe them. These stories are connected only in tone and subject, not in any of the more obvious specifics. There is one explicit connections between two of the stories, and even that is treated in a subtle and understated way.
In summary, Nocturnes is red meat for Ishiguro lovers and people familiar with his oeuvre. If you have never read him though, I continue to stick with my earlier suggestions on the topic. Start with Never Let Me Go, followed by Remains of the Day, and go from there.