Book review: Nocturnes, by Kazuo Ishiguro

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Faber & Faber, 240pp, £14.99 Review by ALLAN MASSIE

KAZUO ISHIGURO IS STILL BEST known for The Remains of the Day, which won the Booker Prize and was made into a successful film. It was an intelligent novel of considerable charm, even if to my mind the narrator's tone of voice was less than convincing. Others took a different view.

Nocturnes, subtitled Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, will probably delight those who admired and enjoyed that novel. Grouping a number of short stories with themes in common can certainly make for a very pleasing book, and Nocturnes has Ishiguro's characteristic charm. The stories are elegant, sometimes wistful, sometimes – which is worse – whimsical. What they don't do is inspire belief, and in the absence of belief it is difficult to be much concerned with the characters.

The first, "Crooner", is set in Venice. An American singer hires a guitarist to accompany him in a hired gondola to serenade his wife. They are about to separate, but he wants to leave her with this memory. Why are they separating? Because his career is in decline and he needs to make a new start, which means that he requires a new wife. It's an improbable scenario and it says much for Ishiguro's quiet skill that he comes close to bringing it off.

The second story, "Come rain or come shine", is also improbable. The narrator, who teaches in Spain, visits old friends from university days. Their marriage is in trouble. The husband, Charlie, believes that if his wife Emily spends a few days with Ray she will see what it is to be a failure, and so be reconciled to him. There follows a series of comic misunderstandings. The musical theme here is slight: Ray and Emily, unlike their fellow students, used to be enthusiasts for American musicals. What sinks this story is not, however, its improbability – for all sorts of improbable things happen in life – but the dialogue, which simply never rings true.

"Malvern Hills" is the best of the five. A young singer-composer, failing in London, spends the summer with his sister and her husband who run a cafe in the hills. He meets a Swiss couple, professional singers, who admire his music and encourage him. There is real charm here and the atmosphere is nicely evoked. One wonders, however, whether the narrator is intended to be as unsympathetic, selfish and self-pitying as he appears.

The fourth and longest story, "Nocturne", is the weakest. It is set in a Hollywood hotel. The narrator, another guitarist, has been persuaded to have a facelift, paid for by the man for whom his wife has left him. It is his agent's idea; he says the guitarist's career is not advancing because he is unphotogenic. In the next room is the wife of the singer of the first story. She is now a celebrity, famous for being famous, and is also having a facelift. (Quite why they are in a hotel rather than a hospital is not very clear.) The pair strike up an unlikely friendship and roam through the hotel at night, their faces still heavily bandaged. This leads to adventures which may generously be termed comic.

Finally, we have "Cellists", a story about a cellist, accosted by a woman who claims to be a distinguished cellist herself and who purports to take his musical education in hand and promises to advance his career.

Here it is the construction which goes wrong. The narrator, another musician, recounts conversations between the pair which he could not possibly have heard and which the reader cannot therefore find credible. This is lazy writing, something the stories have in common: for the most part Ishiguro seems to be doing no more than going through the motions.

His manner is so easy and relaxed that the uncritical reader may be happily lulled by it. However, it is dangerous for a writer to rely on charm, for it tempts him to skirt the difficulties of narrative and construction. The stories here are essentially trivial. Perhaps they have been thrown off in an interval between more demanding work. As it is, they seem to have asked little of the author. They make for easy and agreeably pleasant reading, but from a novelist of Ishiguro's reputation are disappointingly feeble.