How wrenchingly ironic that this was the book I happened to be reading when I learned of a sudden death in our family. On the flight, in the car, during the rare moments of aloneness over the last four days, Kazuo Ishiguro’s stories that spoke of lost chances and endings provided an ideal counterpoint – both gentle and piercing – to the maelstrom of required public and private events of mourning.
Nocturnes – Ishiguro’s only short story collection thus far, as well as his latest title – is comprised of five stories in which music plays a principal role. Some are interlinked: two share characters, two share locations. In the opening “Crooner,” a young guitarist is hired by once legendary singer Tony Gardner – who was the guitarist’s mother’s favorite star – to play underneath Gardner’s wife’s open window as Gardner sings her love songs on the final evening of their bittersweet Venetian vacation. Lindy Gardner, that very wife who is now divorced, reappears in the (singular) “Nocturne,” recovering from cosmetic surgery in a posh Los Angeles hotel, sharing musical adventures with a saxophone player whose agent, soon-to-be ex-wife, and her lover convince the gifted musician that his less-than-gorgeous looks are the only obstacle to major success. In the finale, “Cellists,” the story returns to Venice, perhaps to the same transient band in “Crooners,” in which possibly another member – this time a Hungarian cellist – meets another American musician who nurtures and refines his already considerable talents … but to what end?
Of the remaining two pieces not linked to the three above, both feature troubled ménage à trois-of-sorts: “Come Rain or Come Shine” examines a trio-friendship decades after its university beginnings, in which the loner – a jazz purist – visits the couple on the verge of separation; in “Malvern Hills,” a struggling young British musician finds himself unexpectedly, intimately wedged in between a Swiss couple on their countryside holiday.
For Ishiguro devotees, Nocturnes might prove to be lighter fare than his six previous novels (and, yes, I’ve read each with fervent reverence). While each of the brief movements of this quintet are memorably haunting, the short story form just doesn’t allow enough space for the soulful, detailed, exquisite explorations that define Ishiguro’s longer work. That said, for an enhanced experience, I highly recommend the narrated version, made noteworthy with careful phrasing and added accents, especially as voiced by Mark Bramhall who begins and ends the audible collection.
Read (or listen) … the best music will always move you to tears, no?