Book Review: Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall [by Kazuo Ishiguro]

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Usually a paragraph apologising for an absence. Fast forward?

There were 2 reviews I was planning to do before this, and neither happened. I have notes for one, and no notes for the other, but maybe I can make it work. They’ll hopefully be longer and more satisfying than this. I’ve read Never Let Me Go, and while I didn’t love it, I was pretty keen to read more of Ishiguro’s work because there was something about (some aspects of) the writing that really worked for me, even if other things didn’t. I’ve yet to read The Remains of the Day, but I’ll hopefully be doing so soon. In the meanwhile…

Noctures: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall. The title speaks for itself, it is essentially a collection of five stories linked by the running theme of music. Not so much nightfall, really. The stories, all narrated in first person, are mostly set around disturbed relationships, to which the narrator is something of an outsider-looking-in. Ishiguro’s stories here seem to be written in an atmosphere of something I’m struggling to describe, perhaps a sense of subduedness or a mellowness? Almost a prosaic tone, and I don’t necessarily mean this in a negative sense. Maybe it’s just me.

Four out of the five stories feature protagonists who are struggling musicians trying to get somewhere with their craft. Even though some of the stories seemed to hover on locations for some time – Venice, London, once, an unnamed city – I felt that somehow Ishiguro failed to capture a strong sense of location, and I was overall somewhat distanced from it. Additionally, while I understand believable character development is a difficult thing to achieve in a short story, none of the characters stood out as being interesting. They were forgettable. Perhaps, in this context, the ‘prosaic’ writing filtered through to produce a not-very-positive result. The stories – barring maybe one – all seemed to be so ordinary, and I felt that a great deal went unsaid, as if I was expected to pick up on something between the lines, except there was nothing to pick up on. A kind of tension without any resolution. Some were the kind of stories you’d maybe tell a friend while chatting, but they just didn’t seem meaty enough for a short story, or they simply weren’t stretched that far; the material was rendered very flatly. Ishiguro sometimes gave the impression that something of great momentum was going to occur, only to state something very straightforward and foreseeable. It may have been frustrating if I were gripped by the narrative, but I wasn’t. Anyways, still, I’ll quickly go over them. If you’re excessively sensitive to spoilers…well, honestly, there’s not much to spoil.

The opening story, set in Venice, is narrated by a cafe band musician who meets a once-famous musician, whose heyday is now gone and past. The latter asks him to assist him with a surprise for his wife and in the process the narrator discovers the state of their relationship. This was a story where I found certain things just unconvincing as plot detail, and again, the whole thing felt very ordinary and distant.

Come Rain or Come Shine
A very odd story where the protagonist (a non musician, but with strong musical interests) comes to stay with old friends, now married, in London, only to find that they are having relationship issues. A similar theme, punctuated by moments of unexplained absurdity on the part of the narrator. I couldn’t quite grasp the logic and decision-making at work in this story, and it didn’t sit well with me. Things happened that were just not expanded upon, actions and reactions didn’t seem to fit. Again, the events just didn’t seem to come together in a way that was worthy of a story.

Malvern Hills
Here I feel that Ishiguro was able to achieve a significant sense of location, out in the English countryside. A frustrated out-of-work musician seeks refuge in his sister’s cafe in the Malvern Hills, and meets an oddly-matched Swiss couple. You can see the commonality between the themes in the stories. This story, again, felt very ordinary, and seemed to totally alienate the reader in terms of exposition. Characters said things, but what they thought remains a mystery to me. I can at least say that I appreciated the sense of a physical scenery, but that’s about it.

The titular story. Certainly the one where things actually happen, so I feel like I shouldn’t give too much away, but. The protagonist, a dissatisfied saxophone player, takes a drastic step. In the process he meets a character who features in the first story, and much of the story deals with their interaction. I was relieved to see some action in the story, but the only positive thing I took away from the story is a minor discussion regarding talent vs. hard work, which I appreciated for the fact that the point was raised. Apart from that…nothing. I feel I should have more to say about the titular story…unfortunately, I don’t.

I have to repeat myself again and say this just didn’t seem worthy of a story, or it was being narrated in a way that made it even less so. A formally educated cellist meets a strange tutor. I’ve made it sound more exciting than it is. This is just one of the instances where I felt the situation was being built up to a momentum only to collapse in on itself. Nothing much happens, however I did feel that this story – perhaps along with Malvern Hills, was slightly more convincing in its musical theme. But I may just be grasping at straws for want of anything good to say.

Overall, I wasn’t very impressed with this collection. I didn’t feel that the book was strongly musical, apart from names here and there, it seemed to focus more on relationships, but even that didn’t really work for me. It may be that I’m not specially musical myself, and that I didn’t pick up on things. While there was some minimal engagement with the theme it didn’t feel emotional or intense. Maybe it was partially the way it was advertised, the words nocturnesmusic, nightfall…if not emotional or poetic depth, or strong prose, maybe I expected a sense of enchantment, melancholy, wonder, hauntedness. Any or all would have worked – but none featured. But really, whether thematically connected or otherwise, the stories all fell short for me, and they just failed to be interesting on any level.

I felt like Ishiguro expected the reader to rely on moments that were unstated, things that were missing, for literary satisfaction, but if nothing is being said and there are no hints being given, that is often an issue in itself. Relationships weren’t really explored in any depth, all the stories were, I felt, handled in a very run-of-the-mill, cursory manner. There was nothing to make them stand out. It’s been a while since I was actually bored while reading a book, but I hate to say that this was one of those times. If you like a (really…) relaxing read where the stories kind of meander into nowhere, maybe this is for you. If not, I don’t think I would bother.

(If you’ve actually read this whole thing, I will now actually apologise for this review being rather snappy and repetitive – and, the joke’s on me here, probably kind of boring – and kind of reviewing a book without having much to say, I’m just trying to get back into this. Title of blog, like life, is a work in progress. Unlike life, will be sorted eventually.)

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