Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Mist and the Memory: Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant

I first discovered Kazuo Ishiguro not from his writing but from watching Remains of the Day, which was Anthony Hopkins first film post Silence of the Lambs. After watching his tour de force as Hannibal Lecter, it was shocking to see Hopkins put on such a different and muted performance as a butler struggling to keep his place in a rigidly hierarchal social order.  Both Hopkins and Emma Thompson were amazing in this tragic and painful film and I carried the memory of the film for many years after.

A few years ago, as I started to get into my reading groove, I picked up the book and discovered the hauntingly quiet style of Ishiguro's prose. Shortly after I dived into what has now become the universally adored Never Let Me Go. On the one hand these two works are incomparable. The former a period piece following the lives of the servants working on the estate of an English lord. The latter a  story that delves into the world of science fiction and clones who have been harvested as organ donators. Despite these contrasting settings, both novels grapple with themes of companionship and love that cannot overcome predetermined fates.

While I enjoyed Remains, it was Never Let Me Go that overwhelmed me. Although Ishiguro's style is  calm and gentle, the emotional punch that he delivered is what made me excited to hear about his newest book, The Buried Giant. Even more interesting was Ishiguro's decision to situate this story deep in the realm of fantasy, in a Medieval England filled with ogres, ferries, and dragons. His choice of setting and some comments he made about it drew some unjust ire from legendary SFF author Ursula K. Le Guin and has provoked some valuable discussions about genre and the unnecessary walls it sometimes imposes. With all the chatter surrounding this book, I definitely had high expectations.

The story itself follows an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, who live in a time where everyone's memories are clouded by mist that hangs over the land. They decide that with time running out in their lives it was time to venture out to visit their son who lives in a nearby village. As they embark on their journey they encounter wise monks and talisman, a saxon warrior, a knight who had served under King Arthur, and a young Saxon boy who has become possessed with special powers. Each player is in some way connected to the mist  and  all in some way are trying to preserve or rid the land of the mist's fogging of the past. As Axl and Beatrice follow along with the others, fragments of their pasts slowly seep back into their minds and they must decide whether it is for the best that the mist continues to pervade rather than have painful and angering memories storm back and permanently disturb the quiet tranquillity of the land.

In many ways the themes Ishiguro has touched upon are fascinating. Is it better that hateful feelings that emerged from war be washed away and masked to preserve peace? How do a people, both perpetrators and victims of brutal crimes, overcome the guilt and anger that is felt after a conflict? How precious and powerful is the love of two loyal companions when confronted with their own back story, which may be unpleasant and put into question the strength of their feelings for one another? Does the value of possessing ones memories displace all other things?

Despite the intriguing issues raised,, I found much of the book slow going. The plot and mystery was not as captivating as Never Let Me Go and it took much longer to get into this book, which took away from some of the enjoyability it had. Ishiguro is not a writer who you turn to for fast paced action, but there was a sharpness and tragic empathy that carried the narrators voice in Never Let Me Go that just wasn't replicated in The Buried Giant.

I'd say it is worth picking up but it won't be one of those novels you go around shouting about after completion.  Instead a reader will be left to quietly mull over the ideas and issues Ishiguro has sought to explore, which isn't necessarily such a bad thing.

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