Nocturnes, By Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro's musical new story cycle sounds a sustained note of bittersweet melancholy

Sunday 17 May 2009 00:00 BST

Capturing the magic of one art form through the prism of another is a tricky business. In his seventh book, Kazuo Ishiguro attempts just that, building to a crescendo throughout "Five Stories of Music and Nightfall". Of course, what makes a great musical number, a piece that transcends fashion, is its peculiarity, its uniqueness. It's the draw and impact of this nebulous quality that Ishiguro manages to convey with wit and heart in these tales.

The narrator of the first story, "Crooner", is Janeck, a Polish guitarist entertaining the tourists in Venice's Piazza San Marco one crisp spring morning. Mid-set, he spots Tony Gardner, an ageing American showman in the Tony Bennett mould. Once famous, Tony is now in the twilight of his career and holidaying with his wife Lindy. The singer has a peculiar proposition for Janeck: to accompany him as he treats Lindy to a moonlit serenade. However, the gig takes an unforeseen turn to become an elegiac declaration of love.

In a later story, "Nocturne", a now-divorced Lindy befriends an aspiring saxophonist while they endure a post-plastic surgery convalescence in a luxury hotel. The ballad of Tony and Lindy Gardner echoes through this book like a bittersweet refrain, full of the sadness of two lovers whose bond is broken by the brute strength of market forces.

In other stories, Ishiguro focuses on the more farcical aspects of human encounters. In "Come Rain or Come Shine", a Broadway fan tries to cover up having read and crumpled a friend's diary by getting down on all fours and ransacking her flat like a dog. With its macabre and amusing delivery, this surprisingly deft shift reminded me of Roald Dahl at his Tales of the Unexpected best.

As with his previous fiction, Ishiguro uses a genre to his own ends. Nocturnes pays no more than peppercorn rent to the traditional story cycle in the same way that When We Were Orphans was barely a detective yarn. The ease of the prose, with its misleading smoothness, lulls the reader into a false sense of security. Seemingly gentle narratives of melancholia morph to take into account other themes. Not least the East-West divide. ("How would you understand, my friend, coming from where you do?" Tony asks Janeck.)

Ishiguro's band of characters struggle with the intractable course of life. The ramifications of all those turnings and decisions continue to resonate in their present. Of course, this was the central theme of The Remains of the Day, yet here those intersections occasionally prove to be a balm. There are moments that crackle with possibilities. "Maybe Lindy's right," ponders the saxophonist. "Maybe, like she says, I need some perspective, and life really is much bigger than loving a person. Maybe this really is a turning point for me, and the big league's waiting."

Ultimately this is a lovely, clever book about the passage of time and the soaring notes that make its journey worthwhile: "I rise up in intervals you'd never believe possible and then hold that sweet, very tender high B-flat. I think there are colours there, longings and regrets, you won't have come across before." It's only by taking it to the bridge that Ishiguro's players stop fretting.

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