From unreliable narrators and heartbreaking revelations to ‘the perfect novel’, here is our guide to the 1989 Booker Prize winner’s finest fiction 

Written by John Self

Publication date and time: Published

Kazuo Ishiguro – Booker Prize winner, Nobel Prize winner, one of the most celebrated British novelists of the last 40 years – is the author of the Booker Prizes’ Monthly Spotlight book for March 2024, The Remains of the Day, which won the Prize in 1989 against stiff competition. But if you haven’t read him before, or only his best-known books, you might wonder where to go next. 

I make no apologies for including almost all of Ishiguro’s books in this list. There are two reasons for this. First, he may be the only writer of his generation who has never written a bad or mediocre novel: so wherever you begin, you are guaranteed a rich and rewarding experience. 

Second, next to his peers his output is small: eight novels, a collection of stories and, later this month, a book of lyrics he wrote for the jazz singer Stacey Kent, collected as The Summer We Crossed Europe in the Rain. When I interviewed Ishiguro for the publication of his last novel, 2021’s Booker-longlisted Klara and the Sun, he fretted about this. ‘I’m not very prolific. I often wonder if I can count my Nobel lecture, so actually I’ve written ten books, in double figures!’  

In other words, working your way through all of his books is both eminently do-able and recommended. 

Kazuo Ishiguro

If you want to read a perfect novel

Perfection in the novel is rare. The length of the form – In contrast to the poem or short story – leaves room for bagginess and dropped notes. But Ishiguro’s third book The Remains of the Day is a perfect novel, and in the view of this reader, one of the greatest English novels of the second half of the 20th century. 

Remains is the story of Stevens, a butler in one of England’s ‘great houses’ before and after the Second World War. His voice is muted: he’s a man who prefers the contained scenery of England to the ‘unseemly demonstrativeness of the landscapes of America and Africa’ (which he has never visited). He tells us in detail about his interactions with his employers and colleagues – but he also tells us nothing. Stevens is a man in hiding from himself, whose narrative is characterised by what he leaves out. His obsession with the importance of ‘dignity’ means he cannot allow himself to express his deepest emotions: when he cries, we only realise because of what other characters see. ‘I say, Stevens, are you sure you’re all right there?’ 

His wilful blindness extends to his former employer, Lord Darlington, whom Stevens must believe was a good man, because he knows that a butler can only achieve ‘greatness’ in service to a ‘great gentleman’. And most importantly it extends to Stevens’s relationship with Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper: we can see through Stevens’s narrative veil that she was in love with him, but will he recognise this before it is too late, before the remains of his day are over? 

This novel is perfect because the themes – regret, waste, denial – are fixed into the story and structure with the precision of a fine watchmaker, and because of the tension between Stevens’s withholding of information and Ishiguro’s careful release of it. Reading the book becomes a delicious game with layers of dramatic irony, where the author is one step ahead of the reader, who is one step ahead of the narrator. And when, very late in the story, Stevens finally does open his heart to us in one brief aside, it detonates like an atomic bomb. 

Book cover of The Remains Of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, depicting a ticking clock.

If you want your heart to be broken

If The Remains of the Day isn’t sad enough, try Never Let Me Go, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2005 and has become perhaps Ishiguro’s best-loved novel. The story is set in ‘England, late 1990s’, but it is not the England we know. The narrator, 31-year-old Kathy H, tells us about her childhood and upbringing in an institution called Hailsham, but she drops in words – carer, completing, students, donation – that clearly have a different meaning for her than they do for us. 

The book creates a self-contained world which is impossible to pierce without spoiling the story, and of all Ishiguro’s novels, this may be the one which most depends on not knowing everything too soon. ‘The timing is important,’ Ishiguro told me, because of ‘what it does emotionally to the reader when that piece of information is eventually revealed. The reader has to share the narrator’s ignorance, otherwise they wouldn’t find empathy in the same way.’ 

This is to say, Never Let Me Go is a book with a big secret, which is crucial to the emotional devastation it wreaks on the reader. But the book is not about that secret: the characters and their suffering are analogies for the limitations on all human lives. When the book was featured on BBC TV’s Newsnight Review on its release, the writer Tony Parsons was sceptical. ‘Why don’t they leg it? Try to run away from their fate and destiny,’ he said, and not ‘meekly, passively accept it?’ But this is to miss the point by a mile. Kathy and her friends accept their fate because that is what we all do. In this sense Never Let Me Go achieves what excitable novel blurbs often promise us but rarely deliver: it shows us what it means to be human. That is why it is so powerful and so moving. 

Book cover of Never Let Me Go on black background.

Ishiguro’s most recent novel Klara and the Sun (longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2021) is notionally a sunnier book, a kind of companion piece to Never Let Me Go. The cheerful, optimistic narrator Klara is an Artificial Friend, an AI robot parents can buy to keep their children company – but in her case, her owner’s parents have another plan in mind for her. As with Never Let Me Go, the power is innately connected to the understated way Klara tells her story: so the reader must bring their own emotions and ideas to fill the gaps, and become more engaged with Klara’s fate as a result. 

Klara and the Sun is, like Never Let Me Go, essentially a work of science fiction. Ishiguro enjoys playing with genres (see the detective story in When We Were Orphans, below, or the fantasy quest in The Buried Giant). ‘I think the whole genre thing we have in books isn’t very helpful,’ he said. ‘It puts unnecessary fences on our reading and it puts unnecessary fences on writers’ imaginations.’ (When Never Let Me Go was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for best SF novel in 2006, Ishiguro went to the ceremony and was seen happily chatting to other attendees, including those dressed as Star Wars stormtroopers.) Klara is a novel that gains its power from the way it uses up-to-date themes – artificial intelligence, gene editing – and a fairy-tale tone to create a modern myth of the near future – and there aren’t many literary novelists who can do that. 

Book cover of Klara and the Sun on a black background.

If you like an unreliable narrator

All Ishiguro’s novels, except The Buried Giant, are first-person narratives, because they depend on the tension between how we see the world and how the world really is. The knottiest of Ishiguro’s misguided narrators is Christopher Banks in When We Were Orphans, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2000, and is set in 1920s and ‘30s England and Shanghai. Christopher believes himself to be one of the world’s greatest detectives – but here there will be no straightforward solution. Christopher is too clouded by the recollection of his parents’ disappearance to make sense of anything, and he has blunted the memories that are too difficult to cope with. (For example, he believes he was popular at school, but we hear others talk about him as ‘an odd bird’ and a ‘miserable loner’.) 

All this denial and mental torment has to go somewhere, and it leads to a conclusion that is bold, violent and breathtaking for the reader. When We Were Orphans is a consciously messy book, in contrast to the orderly perfection of The Remains of the Day, and the reader has to work to see through Christopher’s protective delusions, but the rewards are worth it. 

Ishiguro’s second novel An Artist of the Floating World (shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1986), is another masterclass in unreliability, one of the very best books in an oeuvre where the standards are high. Set in a Japan recovering from the Second World War, it’s narrated by Ono, a retired painter whose daily routine of gardening and DIY is interrupted by memories of his involvement in Japan’s military rise, and his actions as a government propagandist – and worse.  

If some of these themes – the war, guilt, deflection of the truth – make this book sound like The Remains of the Day, there’s a reason for that. Ishiguro was frustrated by people reading An Artist of the Floating World as relevant only to Japan: ‘I’ve always worried about being pinned down too much to a specific time and place,’ he told me, ‘because I always want to emphasise the allegorical and metaphorical in my work.’ And so, he decided effectively to rewrite Artist for his next novel. ‘I was surprised by how literal people were about the setting. When I wrote Remains of the Day, I thought, I’ll write the same book I wrote set in Japan, I’ll set it in England this time, and maybe people will think it applies to them now! And it kind of worked.’ 

An Artist of the Floating World

If you want something to puzzle over

After his Booker success with The Remains of the Day – and having taken his pursuit of perfection as far as he could with that book – Ishiguro was emboldened to write his strangest novel, The Unconsoled (1995). It is set in an unnamed European city, where the narrator, Ryder, is due to give a piano recital. Yet he is perpetually frustrated on his way to complete various tasks; people appear and disappear mysteriously; and he enters a room only to find himself outside. The whole book has a dream-logic to it, and the anxiety that Ryder faces in preparing for the recital seems inextricably tied to a desire to please his parents. 

The Unconsoled is a feast of interpretation for the reader, where little is explained. The characters Ryder meets seem to be projections of his own personality. The critic and former Booker judge John Carey said it is ‘a book about stress, a problem of epidemic proportions in our culture that modern fiction largely ignores’. It is long and complex – almost as long as Ishiguro’s first three novels combined – and when published it was vilified by many critics. But it has survived to become a cult favourite and more, and is now regarded by many – including this reader – as one of a great author’s very finest achievements. 

Book cover of The Unconsoled on a black background.

If you want a laugh

All of the above might make you think Ishiguro’s books are not terribly funny. But there is plenty of humour in his books if you look for it. It’s there in The Unconsoled, for example, as Ryder battles comic misunderstandings and faces a porter trying to impress him with a suitcase-balancing act. 

Ishiguro’s comedy appears most explicitly in Nocturnes (2009), his only collection of stories. Sometimes this takes the form of bathos, where a would-be cellist decides not to risk the potential of their talent by actually playing the instrument, or where a jobbing musician finally gets to work with one of the musical greats, but only after the latter’s career is on the skids. Elsewhere the comedy is more explicit: the story ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ is an out-and-out farce, with a climax involving one character impersonating a dog on all fours to avoid a humiliating confrontation. 

And yet we end where we began, because Ishiguro’s funniest book of all is, surprisingly, The Remains of the Day. Spliced in among the regret and self-deception are very funny scenes. There is one where the buttoned-up Stevens, worried about his inability to fool along with his new employer, tries out his ‘bantering’ skills and accidentally makes a dirty joke to a group of strangers in a rural pub. In another scene, he ties himself in knots when tasked with offering sex education lessons to a young man soon to be married. (‘Sir David wishes you to know, sir, that ladies and gentlemen differ in several key respects.’) 

Ishiguro intended the novel to be read in this way. ‘The Remains of the Day was supposed to be a comedy,’ he told me. ‘It was a kind of riff on P.G. Wodehouse. The idea of a guy who doesn’t have any sense of humour is quite funny. I probably find him funnier than most people do.’ The ‘magnificent’ film of the novel, he added, removed most of the humour from the book by playing it ‘dead straight’. But ‘in the very early stages, when Harold Pinter was the screenwriter, he wanted to cast John Cleese as the butler. He saw the whole thing as quite comic.’ Basil Fawlty as Stevens! And comedy and tragedy rolled into one. A perfect novel indeed. 

Book cover of Nocturnes on a black background.