I picked this up off the library shelf based solely on the fact that I’ve enjoyed the other works of Kazuo Ishiguro that I’ve read—particularly the stellar The Remains of the Day. Music doesn’t capture me in the same way that it does many of my friends. That is to say, I find music powerful and compelling, but stories about music don’t always hold the same allure for me. Bel Canto stands out as a notable exception; most end up like Overture though.
Nocturnes isn’t a novel, though, but an anthology of five short stories. One could even argue they are more closely related than the typical short story collection. A character from the first story even reappears in the fourth story, in an expanded and slightly different role. Each story features a different type of protagonist who has a different relationship to music. Most of them are musicians. One of them is merely a music lover. In every case, their relationship with music is a key part of the story.
The second story, “Come Rain or Come Shine”, is probably the weakest of the five. Its protagonist is the non-musician, the music lover. Ray has returned to England after teaching English in Spain, and he is staying with a couple of friends who are going through marital problems. The husband goes off on a work trip, so Ray stays behind with Emily. In university they bonded over their musical interests, but now they have drifted apart. The principal plot revolves around Ray’s harebrained attempts to conceal his peek into Emily’s small journal. In any other collection this might be a humorous little diversion. Unfortunately, this story’s connection to the music seems tenuous at best; unlike its companions, it does not clearly belong in this book.
My favourite of the remaining stories is “Malvern Hills”. Its nameless, optimistic guitarist/songwriter retreats to his sister’s cafe for the summer after an unsuccessful hunt for a band in London. There, he encounters a Swiss couple on holiday and, after a rocky first meeting, learns they are a professional performing duo—she sings and he plays. They offer him slightly different perspectives on living for and off the music. Tilo, the husband, is closer in temperament to the protagonist: idealistic and optimistic, full of love and hope for what lies around the corner. Sonja, his wife, is more realistic, more pragmatic. She sees the hard edges and dangerous undercurrents that lurk beneath every tour, every performance. For the protagonist, who is struggling to launch his own career and make ends meet, these two perspectives are invaluable. And it’s interesting to watch him process them and integrate them into his own thinking.
The other stories are all right but didn’t quite stay with me in the same way. People who make music, or even people who love music in a different way from the way I do, might find this collection more entertaining. As it is, the stories exhibit a lot of the skill I would expect from Ishiguro. The characters have that same intense, almost melancholy pathos that seems to pervade his characters in his other novels. However, I can’t get as excited about the quality or value of Nocturnes as I can about those other books. They just don’t compare.