I love Kazuo Ishiguro. Love. So I was very excited to hear about this newest book, which is a collection of five stories “of music and nightfall.” As per usual, Ishiguro crafts his stories beautifully and (appropriate considering their themes) lyrically. Ishiguro is certainly an international writer, as he has proven with his novels (given their varied settings) and continues with these stories. He comfortably and convincingly places his stories and characters all over the world, ranging from LA to Venice to rural England, while using common human themes and passions to unite them. These different backgrounds and settings of the characters ultimately expose how similar they actually are in their relationships with people and with music.
Music is at center at each of these stories in different ways, from the aspiring musicians to the music lovers to the singer past his peak. The importance of music to each of these characters, however, is used more as a starting point to explore their relationships with or observations of others. In more than two (in fact most) stories, we see a marriage at its breaking point and the attempts of those involved to salvage it. We see the progression of friendships and family relationships, and the strains they can cause. Many of the characters attempt to reconcile following their dreams with accepting reality, often with the help of strangers. There are the musicians who relied on music and other musicians to escape from behind the Iron Curtain, both literally and figuratively. But if all this makes Nocturnes sound like a dark collection of stories and heavy meditation on human nature, I have been misleading. I found the stories overall light and pleasant – little glimpses into these musical lives, with their tragedies, oddities, and all. They are often humorous as well – Ishiguro seemed to enjoy exploring the frequent absurdity of life by placing his characters in situations that somehow involved a trophy-stuffed turkey and the boiling of an old boot. Along with these ruminations on life, music flows continuously throughout the collection. The progression within each story, and from one story to the next, has a musical quality to it. Little things, whether it is a character or an idea, come back like a refrain. At the risk of extending the musical metaphors too far, each story seemed to me like a bit of a song heard from a distance, blurry and dreamlike.
With all that said, however, I can understand why, for example, my mom didn’t care for the book. What I love so much about Ishiguro’s novels, aside from his masterful writing, is that I become so invested in them. That didn’t exist for me in Nocturnes. The nature of the short story (as great a literary form as it is) doesn’t lend itself as easily to that feeling as that of a novel. Though his characters were reminiscent of what I loved about those in his novels, particularly with the tone of their narration and reflections on memory, none of them stuck with me like his others did (I’m thinking especially of Never Let Me Go – read it). And yet, I definitely enjoyed Nocturnes. It was nice to see a change of pace from Ishiguro and experience his writing in another form – but I’ll be anxiously awaiting his next novel.