Olaf Olafsson’s Walking into the Night will draw inevitable comparisons to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, both of which have butlers as their protagonists. While both deal with conflicted manservants’ inner anxieties and failures in the midst of a changing global crisis—Ishiguro’s novel focuses on the build up to the Second World War in Britain whereas Olafsson’s focuses on the years just prior to this in America, emphasizing more the Depression’s impact on celebrities—they are very different in their treatment of their protagonists’ inner lives.
Stevens, in The Remains of the Day, has reflections about his childhood, but his anxieties and stalemates are located uncannily in his place of work. By contrast, Kristjan’s reflections are of a lost world that is no longer available to him geographically or emotionally, except in dreams and memories. I could say more about the two novels' similarities and differences, but I suppose that would then see me repeated the critical move of joining the two so simply and irrevocably. I think that any novel that has a male butler as its protagonist, especially given the brilliant portrayal of Stevens’s conflict by Ishiguro, will always be compared to The Remains of the Day. Ishiguro has, in essence, created a subgenre all his own, then.
To return to Olafsson:
Kristjan is unfailing at his duties as Chief Hearst’s butler, but his nagging conscience, the mistakes that he has made in the past, his regrets and his isolation (not least of which is underscored by his choice to move from Iceland to California, from a job of power to a job of service) soon interfere with his typically by-rote existence at the San Simeon castle.
In stark, spare, and unrelentingly gutting prose, Olafsson shifts the point of view here in a way that gives the reader increasing glimpses into the interior life of his main character, and then by turns to Elisabet, the woman whom he has left behind and to whom he writes letters he will never send. The idea of confession is very intriguing here: how the person to whom Kristjan feels he must confess is the one person he will never see again.Bleak but beautifully imagined, Walking into the Night is a meditation on love, loss, and the myriad regrets we make as we go on about our lives. Olafsson is a master at rendering place, especially outdoor scenes, and also in insisting on how tiny gestures (the closing of a door, the gathering of blossoms, a finger tracing a lover’s spine) can convey the emotional and psychological states of people more succinctly and accurately than words can.