Faber & Faber
“There’s a journey we must go on, and no more delay…” Like many other epic tales, set long, long ago in distant lands this one begins with a quest. There is no ring to destroy, no fiend to slay, no honour to defend; Axl and his wife Beatrice seek their adult son, who has long departed their modest village. Or at least that’s what they surmise – the whole land has been entombed in a memory-clouding fog, and everybody suffers from a disorientating confusion of where they are and why they’re there. Early on a little girl goes missing, and naturally a search party is sent out to find her. It isn’t long before they forget why they’re searching, and each wanders home in increasingly high spirits to return to their day to day lives. It isn’t until the girl shows up around the large hearth at the heart of their dwelling that a vague memory returns that there was concern about her wellbeing at some time in the near past.
Axl and Beatrice are elderly by early Anno Domini standards, and though they can still work, still contribute to their society, they are beginning to become burdened with the ill treatment of the younger members of their community. The soul candle by which they receive light in the long evenings has been confiscated, though they can recall not why. Women in their earlier years, grown superstitious as a result of their lives’ uncertainty, berate Beatrice for speaking to an outsider. Children mock and tease them without reprecussion from their parents. The couple has become isolated, and make up their minds to depart their village to visit their son. The obstacles and unexpected characters they meet on their way shape the outcome of their quest, and uncover more truths than perhaps they care to know.
Kazuo Ishiguro is perhaps the prizewinning author least concerned by being defined by a particular genre. His Man Booker winning third novel The Remains of the Day centers around a butler in a manor in England and his relationship with the housekeeper. Never Let Me Go takes place in an alternative Britain, where happy children in a special boarding school grow up to discover their predestined purpose for living. The Buried Giant sees Beatrice and Axl negotiate the early years of the third or fourth century, battling supernatural forces, long after the Romans have departed and long before this present day. The pin that links many of his works together, however, is the notion of losing control, of having little or no power over the outcomes of their own lives. This is glaringly present in The Buried Giant, and though it’s far more metaphorical than the unfortunates in Never Let me Go, its message is just as powerful.
As well as struggling to remember the course to their son’s village the couple must remain on high alert to the dangers of open country; Saxons, soldiers, animals, demons alike. A detour to a Saxon village, in search of a medicine woman who can help Beatrice with an ailment, brings them into contact with Wistan, a visiting warrior from an eastern county who aids the terrified villagers when ogres attack. A boy is taken, but once heroically rescued by Wistan it is discovered that he has sustained such an injury as to have the villagers turn on him and cast him out of their community. Axl and Beatrice take him on as their ward until they reach a community ignorant of his wound that will adopt him, and with the warrior Wistan by their side they continue on their journey towards their final destination.
Ishiguro takes on a style of prose in keeping with Old and Middle English language epics, a style reminiscent of master storytelling, so it is of no great surprise when (bane of first year NUIG English students’ lives) Sir Gawain and his trusty steed Horace turns up. Years on from defeating the green knight for King Arthur, Gawain has now been trusted with the flaying of Querig, the dragon-woman who terrorises the realm. Up until this point there is little humour in the story, but Gawain here seems less upstanding knight of the round table and more Sir Didymus (a plucky fox who rides a dog, from 1980’s Jim Henson Muppet movie, Labyrinth). This absurd imagery may be down to a craving for some comedic relief and a less plodding narrative – the style is designed for the reader to savour each word but at times it feels like a whole lot of padding that gets in the way of the otherwise engaging plot. A page turner this book isn’t; I even left it aside and forgot about it for a few days, but once back in the flow it did begin to capture the imagination. Indeed, it’s at the point of interaction with Sir Gawain that the story really takes off, and where it goes from there is both surprising and thought-provoking.
Drawing from his own background growing up in England and his interest in Japan, his birthplace, Ishiguro creates a myth that combines elements of both. A terrifying beast that attacks the group draws comparison to the yokai of Japanese folklore, supernatural monsters that often resemble animals, and the strange fog that has plunged the country into amnesia takes elements from the fear of ancient cultures over any unexplained natural phenomena.
A clever and beguiling read for those who enjoy historical fantasy fiction, this novel is no doubt intricate and imaginative. Others more used to a contemporary style of writing may lose interest due to the slow pacing, but any reader who wants a satisfying pay-out for sticking with it would do well to set a suitably atmospheric weekend aside to read what is a novel ultimately on the right side of old-fashioned.
– Aoife B. Burke
First published in The Tuam Herald on 8th April 2015