The Unconsoled is a challenging read. It’s over 500 pages long, and even though I can usually go through a book or two a week, it took me several weeks to read this, because I found myself having to stop once in a while to absorb what I’ve just read. And it is just so worth it. I’ve read a lot of good books (Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go among them) last year, but this is the one that I think really blew me away.
The story begins with Ryder, a world-famous pianist, checking in at a hotel in a city he doesn’t know for a concert he cannot remember having agreed to give. Lost and extremely confused, he decides to just go along with it, hoping to learn more as he goes. The story has a very surreal, dream-like quality to it. You know how in dreams, things that wouldn’t make sense in real life seem realistic because they fit in with some weird internal logic within the dream? So many things that Ryder undergoes shouldn’t make sense, and yet we somehow accept that they do, because Ishiguro maintains an undercurrent of internal logic throughout. In this way, we as readers undergo the experiences with Ryder, and Ishiguro keeps us as off-balance as Ryder must be feeling. Ryder is sucked into a whirlwind of publicity stunts, interviews and parties to promote his upcoming concert. Not knowing anything about the concert or his agenda, Ryder sometimes stands back and watches in a daze as things unfold, and other times, he interacts with people, and performs his public relations duties perfectly, though with a sense that he does it all by rote without really understanding why.
It would be easy to dismiss the entire story as just a dream, a completely nonsensical Alice in Wonderland type tale. But as the story progresses, it becomes clear that all these seemingly nonsensical threads are propelling the reader, and Ryder, forward in a very logical, purposeful pattern. Even more important, despite all the seeming superficiality of events, deep, complex emotions are slowly revealed in characters. Even though Ryder walks around in a daze, the other characters are very clear about what’s happening, and are genuinely confused at Ryder’s befuddlement.
Reading The Unconsoled, I went from trying to figure out what was going on to deciding that was impossible and simply sitting back and enjoying the ride. The story’s emotional core crept up on me, as I imagine it must have crept up on Ryder. I started understanding more of what was going on, as I saw Ryder was doing as well. The blurb at the back of my book describes Ryder’s world as possibly ”the day-to-day reality of a man whose public self has taken on a life of its own,” which explains it perfectly, I think. Eventually, all the public relations-type events Ryder attends blur together, with little distinction between them. In contrast, Ryder’s relationship with his family develops in deep, complex ways. We begin to learn less about his public life and more about his private life, and it is only when we do that the story becomes less dream-like, and more real.
I am a major Ishiguro fan, and I especially love the beauty and cadence of his language. He uses it extremely well in Unconsoled, taking readers into a world of dreams and reality and the reality of dreams. Funny, complex and haunting, this is an amazing novel.