Book Review: The Unconsoled, Kazuo Ishiguro

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(Faber & Faber, March 2005)

The Unconsoled is like a glimmering mirage that sucks you in as you try to look away. Think the glistening red apple proffered in fairytales or the White Witch’s shimmering, crystalline Turkish delight; the novel is irresistible yet its consumption is overwhelming.

The novel produces a kind of delirium in the reader, which makes your head spin and your eyes tire.  But I soon find that it is not The Unconsoled’s phantasmic and incongruous narrative that makes me feel uneasy, but its unpredictably uncanny parallel with my own thoughts that makes the absurd nature of this dream world, seem true to real life. In the novel time is immeasurable and inexplicable, hours spent asleep or listening to music seem like minutes to the novel’s protagonist Ryder, whilst short conversations are made to seem excruciatingly long by Ishiguro. Consequently, the reader feels lost and at home, confused by the muddle of narrative and familiar with the way in which time can move at a snail’s pace or rush past in the blink of an eye.

Kazuo Ishiguro is an avant-garde, Japanese-English novelist and four times Man Booker prize nominee (winning in 1989 for The Remains of the Day) whose previous novels have been classified as futuristic and science-fiction explorations of time and the tread marks of modernization. The Unconsoled goes further to provide an experiential narrative of the absurd, in which form, style, structure and characterisation mimic the meaningless and arbitrary nature of life and the contingency of time, whilst conveying the protagonists and the reader’s battle for consolation, meaning and truth.

Ryder is the omniscient narrator and protagonist of the novel, though his immersion into the uncontrollable superfluity of an unknown European City and his apparent amnesia that leaves him unable to recall why he is there in the first place, leaves him out of control. The novel is punctuated by analepsis and a consistent hiatus of communication as Ryder tries to understand what his purpose is in the city. Eventually our understanding (filtered through Ryder’s meagre consciousness) is enabled to realise that Ryder is the artistic saviour for the small, musical community, whose culture is desperate for reform and hope.

I started this novel with the feeling that nothing would be explained, that there would be small moments of triumph but no ultimate end or meaning, due to the nature of the absurd world that Ishiguro has staged. This is what pulls the reader to read on, regardless of whether or not they will be rewarded with explanation.

I slept-walked through this novel, at first blindly unaware of why I had chosen to pursue an ending or a meaning for a book whose first piece of dialogue concerning a Porter’s preferred method of carrying his bags had lasted for five pages. However the tedium faded when I had to let go of my conventional reading methods; to experience, rather than read The Unconsoled.

2 Responses

  1. Hannah says:

    That exactly sums up my experience reading the book! I think too often we read with with the ending in sight, wanting a big pay-off for investing our time in a book, rather than just experiencing the journey. You can’t really do that was Ishiguro, which is one of the many reasons why I love him. Great review!

    • Kate Dobinson says:

      Thanks very much Hannah. It’s refreshing to hear that you had the same experience, I know others who have read Ishiguro and not enjoyed it, become frustrated etc. Have you read anything by Paul Auster? He is also an exceptional absurd prose writer, The New York Trilogy is particularly absorbing.