Kazuo Ishiguro speaks clearly in interviews. The sentences of his novels are clear. The Unconsoled has some sixteen thousand sentences, and none of them need read twice, though some are beautiful and reward a second reading. In his interviews, he states that his motive in writing novels is to evoke a feeling in the reader so that he can then say to them,
I feel like this sometimes,
and then ask,
do you as well?
I’ve read The Unconsoled two and a half times. The last time, I could not imagine reading anything else. Before beginning it again, I lay on my living room floor for several nights and tried to imagine reading other books and could not.
It is composed of 535 pages and 38 chapters, so each chapter is an average of 14 pages. This is a gentleness that more than counterbalances its challenges, the primary of which is its irrationality.
Nothing I will say about the novel is precisely true, but all of it is true in a way.
Each chapter evokes a mood or an emotion, or at least an impression. They are impressionistic. Many critics have emphasized their dreamlike quality, but they don’t wastefully detail unreality. They don’t lay on strangeness. It is more like how in old stories characters go from one dramatic scene to the next. This is according to Northrop Frye in Secular Scripture. I can’t produce examples of it. I say it because Frye is an expert and it seems relevant.
In The Unconsoled, few sentences are wasted trying to produce a realistic effect, but nor are many used to the opposite end. In other words, Ishiguro seems free of realism and magic realism and absurdism. He just aims for his stated effect: evoking precise feelings in the reader.
That effect is served by having it unclear whether the boy, named Boris (who is the son a woman, Sophie, who seems to be something like Ryder’s wife) is quite his son or is somehow a younger version of himself, perhaps tagging along mentally. And it doesn’t matter for the apparent purposes of the novel. For example, in chapter 15, there are speeches. The first speech, made by the man on the bus, consoling Boris in a manner done many times throughout the book (Ryder does it , Sophie does it, an old school friend does it) doesn’t count. That’s just a lullaby that characters perform for one another, detailing future comfort. Does the lake, known to be used for suicides, set the tone? The speeches in this chapter are indignant, grandiose, self-righteous. Ryder tells off a stranger who is describing domestic abuse to Ryder while Boris is within earshot. A stocky woman tells Ryder to “cut the crap”. Boris and his grandfather Gustav give a dramatic speech to a gang of imaginary thugs, offering them one last chance to disperse, or face the consequences. All of this is leading up to chapter 16, in which a woman whom Ryder had met on a bus expects him to help her put her tormentors to shame by revealing that he, the world-famous pianist, is indeed her childhood friend.
“I’ll terminate this conversation!” Ryder shouts repeatedly, threatening the describer of domestic abuse.
Boris addresses the thugs: “We’ve fought you many times. There are even more of you this time , I can see. But you must each of you know in your hearts you cannot win. And this time my Grandfather and I can’t guarantee you some of you won’t get seriously hurt. There’s no sense in this fighting. You must all have had homes once. Mothers and fathers. Perhaps brothers and sisters. I want you to understand what’s happening. These attacks of yours, your continual terrorising of our apartment, this has meant that my mother is crying all the time. She’s always tense and irritable, and this means she often tells me off for no reason. It also means Papa has to go away for long periods, sometimes abroad, which Mother doesn’t like. This is all the result of your terrorising the apartment. Perhaps you’re simply doing it because you’re high-spirited, because you come from broken homes and you know no better. This is why I’m trying to get you to understand what’s really happening, the real effects of your inconsiderate behavior. What it could come to sooner or later is that Papa won’t come back home at all. We might even have to move out of the apartment altogether. This is why I’ve had to bring Grandfather here, away from his important work in charge of a big hotel. We can’t allow you to continue with you’ve been doing. And this is why we’ve been fighting you. Now that I’ve explained things to you, you have a chance to think it all over and go back. If you don’t, then Grandfather and I will have no choice but to fight you again. We’ll do our best to kick you unconscious without doing any long-lasting damage, but in a large fight, even with our level of skill, we can’t guarantee some of you won’t end up with bad bruises, even broken bones. So take your chances and go back.”
In some ways this scene is more lucid than most of the story.