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Having reviewed over 1100 books on this blog, I have now written one myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. It is available on Kindle through Amazon. Read it and find out whether this critic can write. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Saturday, 1 October 2016

"The Buried Giant" by Kazuo Ishiguro

Axl and Beatrice, two Britons living in a rural village in a land full of mist, an old couple full of forgetfulness, decide to travel to their son's village; they can't quite remember but something may have happened which is why he left but they are sure that he will welcome them and they can go and live with him.

Beatrice has a pain in her side so they decide to go to a nearby Saxon village first to find a woman who is skilled in healing.

On the way they meet a strange boatman who tells them that he ferries people to an island where, usually, the people are quite alone. But sometimes, the boatman says, he ferries a couple across and, if they answer certain questions correctly, when they get to the island they will be company one for the other.

In the Saxon village they meet a Saxon warrior, Wistan, who is on a mission to kill a dragon, Querig, who makes the mist that is the source of all forgetting and a boy, Edwin, who has been injured after having been abducted by ogres. And then they meet Sir Gawain. We are firmly within the realm of myth and legend but what part did Axl play in all of this when he was young?

This is a book written with haunting lyrical beauty, mostly seen from the point of view of Axl although there are two episodes narrated by Sir Gawain, Edwin is given a section to narrate, and the final chapter is narrated by the boatman. Beatrice is a wonderful character, full of compassion and concern; her main goal is to have Axl with her after she is dead. None of the other characters match her in reality.

I found the penultimate section rather difficult. There seemed a lot of philosophy being discussed all of a sudden. The author's message seemed close to being an intruder.

Ishiguro also wrote When We Were Orphans, reviewed in this blog, and the brilliant Never Let Me Go, as well as The Remains of the Day and A Pale View of Hills and a number of other remarkable books. In fact he is a modern writing genius!

There is a standard story called the Hero's Quest. Classically it is a three act structure but since act 2 is separated into 2a and 2b, I like to think of it as four acts:

  • Act 1 'Separation' is set in the 'normal' world when an 'inciting incident' calls the hero to adventure. At first the hero refuses the call but then he (or she) meets a mentor and crosses the threshold into the Other world.
  • In Act 2 'Descent' the hero is tested and meets allies and enemies
  • The Ordeal, involving death and rebirth (usually symbolic or psychological), is at the very centre of the book.
  • Act 3 'Initiation' begins the long process of the road back. At some point the hero 'seizes the sword'. We are still in the Other world but at the end of Act 3 the hero crosses the threshold back into the normal world.
  • Act 4 'Return' involves some sort of resurrection experience as the climax of the book; finally the hero returns to reality with the magic potion, a better and wiser person.

Ishiguro's book sets out to conform to this paradigm: it starts off in a quasi-normal world, although already there are strange magical elements hovering around the fringes of normality. It flouts the convention because, at the end, they do not return to a normal world. Both Axl and Beatrice have to make the decision to travel to see their son, and they both act as curbs on one another. For Beatrice there is a strange meeting with a red-haired stranger, and the fact that she is nurturing some illness inside her body. Perhaps for Axl the decision is made when his wife is in trouble for having a candle. The community has decreed that they are too old to have a candle in the bedroom in case they spill it and set the place on fire but Beatrice says that this is "nothing but unkindness"; "We will not sit night after night in darkness." Bit of a metaphor there?

They set off, walking over the Great Plain and over the mound where the giant is buried, aware that this is a place of danger. A storm starts and they take shelter in a ruined villa where they meet a boatman and a woman with a rabbit in her hand. The boatman ferries souls to the land of the dead and the woman is a widow with a grudge: he took her husband years ago and will not take her too; furthermore, unless she can prove how close their relationship was, when she reaches the island of the dead she will be on her own and never meet her husband again. This acts as a warning to Beatrice: how can she answer the boatman's questions when her time comes given that their memories are so bad, with the mist of forgetfulness hanging over the land.

After the old couple have decided to travel they meet the boatman and an old woman. It is this meeting they meet Wistan and Edwin and Sir Gawain. And it is exactly at the halfway point that Axl and Beatrice learn the secret of the mist. This secret drives a new quest for the second part of the book, when they realise that there is something else that they have to do.

The mist is forgetfulness. It clouds our memories. This is good, because we cannot remember sadnesses and we become aware that there are episodes in Axl and Beatrice's earlier life that are perhaps best forgotten. One of the central questions of the book is whether forgetfulness can be a good thing.

I don't think that the mist is ever described in a positive way. Sir Gawain defends forgetfulness as a necessary part of achieving a peaceful society, in a world where reciprocity, retribution and revenge seem to be the norm. Axl can understand this argument (and it would appear that Axl has a past that he has been trying to bury, that he doesn't want remembered) but Beatrice disagrees. For her, forgetfulness threatens her chance to spend eternity with the man she loves. I suppose that Ishiguro is trying to make the distinction between a love which is contingent upon certain secrets never being revealed and a love that accepts imperfections.

But both Axl and Beatrice have buried the memory that their son is dead.

In Chapter Two, right at the beginning of their journey, Axl and Beatirce meet the boatman and an old woman. This is an important meeting because it gives Beatrice a reason for her quest: she wants to remember her life with Axl because the alternative is to face eternity alone. The old woman seems less important except as a warning that this is what might become of Beatrice if she does not succeed in their quest. I don't understand why she is so keen on killing the rabbit.

This book is a radical departure for Ishiguro, confirming that he refuses to be stereotyped by genre. He has moved boldly into the world of fantasy and given it his own twist.

There were moments when I felt that the book could have worked better. Discussing it with members of my reading group there was a clear disagreement as to whether the quest on which Axl and Beatrice had departed was to find their son or to recover their memories. This core confusion led to some weakening of the thrust of the plot. One reader felt that it meant that A & B were continually being side-tracked: if they wanted to find their son why did they keeping trying to achieve other goals. Another reader mused that this was a bit like life. I felt that there was a discontinuity when A & B come across the poisoned goat; another reader felt that the plot was full of such discontinuities as though Ishiguro had in mind a series of scenes he wanted to record but little overall purpose.

Two readers confessed they had great difficulty in finishing the book.

Nevertheless, I feel that the Ishiguro's brilliance showed in his wonderful characterisations and his beautiful scene-setting. I loved (and another reader hated) the minutely choreographed between Wistan and the solider that he kills, observed so carefully by Axl, showing Axl's understanding of warfare. I was particularly impressed by the way the two main characters were brought to vivid life and their love so delightfully rendered.

And there was confusion over why the book was called The Buried Giant. There is the giant's burial mound early on, and later there is a cairn to a giant, but giant's don't seem to figure greatly. Our reading group consensus was that memory was the giant buried in all of us. What do you think? Tell me on twitter @daja57

A marmite book perhaps.

October 2017; 362 pages

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