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The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, a review

the buried giant kazuo ishiguro cover autumn leaves book and biscuit“But then again I wonder if what we feel in our hearts today isn’t like these raindrops still falling on us from the soaked leaves above, even though the sky itself long stopped raining. I’m wondering if without our memories, there’s nothing for it but for our love to fade and die.”

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro

 

Set in Britain, shortly after the death of King Arthur, The Buried Giant follows an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice as they make a perilous journey through a land plagued with ogres, pixies and dragons to reunite with their beloved son. They can’t remember what it was that has caused their long estrangement, because a strange forgetfulness plagues the land, only that they desperately long to reunite with him in their old age after their own village has deemed them to be unsafe owning a candle, forcing them to spend the long evenings in total darkness. As they travel, a series of chance encounters make them realise that the amnesia has a magical cause, and as flashes of their memories return, Axl and Beatrice begin to wonder whether their marriage truly is as strong as they believe.

Typically understated and immensely powerful though it is, The Buried Giant initially appears to be a departure from Kazuo Ishiguro’s usual terrain, straying as it does into the realm of fantasy, in a post-Roman Britain overrun with the superstitious and supernatural. In reality, human relationships are at the heart of the novel, and it addresses themes such as memory, perception and love which have been keystones of his other works.

With the exception of the bombastic Sir Gawain, who is prone to soliloquising and projection, the characters are understated. The most interesting characters Axl, Beatrice and Wistan often seem to conflicted about their own actions, but for various reasons seem compelled to uncover the truth of the past, though by the end of the novel we are left wondering whether it is best to examine the darkness of the past, or whether it would have been better to embrace the forgetfulness to move forward in peace without true healing or forgiveness. Like many of Ishiguro’s works, it tells a restrained and deceptively simple story which nonetheless leaves you thinking about the implications of small scenes, and what their implications are for understanding the story on a micro- and a macro- level.

Spoilers to follow

The Ending of The Buried Giant

So, you’ve read The Buried Giant and now you’re wondering about the symbolism and that ambiguous ending. Does the boatman come back and take Axl to the island to be with Beatrice?

My feeling is that the boatman is clearly a psychopomp figure, so akin to the ferryman who carries the souls of the dead to the underworld, and the island is a place inhabited by the souls of the dead and dying, with the fact that this location is an island having clear links with Avalon and the references to Arthurian lore that crop up through the book.

To my mind, there’s no doubt that the boatman intends for Axl and Beatrice to be together on the island- there’s no ambiguity that they will be allowed to be together on the island, the boatman frequently makes reference to their clear devotion- it’s simply a matter of when. Beatrice is clearly dying, the pain, the blood in the urine and the fever that she suffers, coupled with her frailty make this immediately obvious to the reader, and by the end of the novel it’s clear that Beatrice, the boatman and Axl are all aware of her impending death.

The boatman’s questions in this instance, seem to be a form of ritual confession, unburdening the dying and the ones they will leave behind of the unspoken resentments of the past to allow them to move forward. The boatman is preparing Axl for his wife’s death, knowing that he will be left behind to wait for his time, he even shows him barnacles that he can harvest for his dinner.

Maybe I’ve got a tendency to read a happy ending into an ambiguous ending, but for me, The Buried Giant ends with the clear prospect of the couple being reunited, the boatman frequently reassures him that it is only for this crossing, the boatman has to do his duty and take only the dying Beatrice first. Axl’s mistrust is clear as he wades back to shore, but the boatman’s parting words, reminding Axl to wait for him on the shore, nod to the prospect of their reunion.

When they first meet the boatman says, “We boatmen have seen so many over the years it doesn’t take us long to see beyond deceptions. Besides, when travellers speak of their most cherished memories, it’s impossible for them to disguise the truth. A couple may claim to be bonded by love, but we boatmen may see instead resentment, anger, even hatred. Or a great barrenness. Sometimes a fear of loneliness and nothing more. Abiding love that has endured the years—that we see only rarely. When we do, we’re only too glad to ferry the couple together.”

On their last meeting, it’s clear from the questioning that Axl has let go of the resentment and anger over Beatrice’s infidelity, and she that he kept her from his son. The boatman knows that they share an abiding love which has endured the years, “It is beyond question that the two of you will dwell on the island together, going arm in arm as you’ve always done.”

 

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An Instance of The Fingerpost by Iain Pears

an instance of the fingerpost iain pears“God forbid that I should ever suffer the shame of publishing a book for money, or of having one of my family so demean themselves. How can one tell who might read it? No worthy book has ever been written for gain, I think.”

An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears

Set in 1663, twelve years after the end of the English Civil War, An Instance of The Fingerpost by Iain Pears is a bitingly clever murder mystery set in the streets and colleges of restoration Oxford. Narrated by four narrators, the reader is left to piece together the true course of events from highly unreliable narratives before discovering “the truth” in a final narrative which leaves you, despite your better judgement, unable to question the credibility of the self-proclaimed “objective” narrator.

This is simultaneously the most intelligent and most enjoyable novel that I’ve read in a very long time. It’s clearly been immaculately researched, but at no point do you feel as though you’re having a lecture on life in post-Civil War Oxford. What particularly impressed me was the way that historical characters are seamlessly woven with fictional players (in reality, most of the characters are historical characters, though the events of the novel are fictional) and familiar figures from history like John Locke and Robert Boyle drift in and out of the novel as minor players, their genius and personalities noted as incidentals in the more pressing stories the characters are telling.

I admit, that part of my fondness for this novel was the Oxford setting. The descriptions of areas that are now fairly gentrified within the city centre as filthy, run down hovels was amusing, but I especially enjoyed the description of a religious meeting in a warehouse on the quay at Abingdon (a hotbed of radicalism, apparently). I’m almost certain I know where the building the author describes must be.

If you’ve ever spent any significant time in Oxford, or are planning a little sightseeing, this is a wonderful read and one which will truly stand the test of time.

Happily Ever After by Harriet Evans

happily-ever-afterIf you had to list all the conventions of dodgy “chick lit”, what would be the first things that spring to mind? A heroine an ugly duckling heroine who works in publishing/media/journalism and meets one or more wrong men before blossoming into a swan? A contemporary city setting, possibly London or New York? An irritating friend whose heart is in the right place? A cool friend who acts in underhanded ways?

When I started reading Happily Ever After by Harriet Evans, it seemed to check off all the conventions of bad “Chick Lit” and really annoyed me. I’ve read so many books which make careers in publishing, sound glamorous and easy that when this book started to do the same I was almost ready to throttle the main character Eleanor Bee. As I read on though, I realised that the author was hitting the chick lit check boxes in such a self-deprecating and clever way that I began to enjoy it. I enjoyed it even more when the slightly gauche Elle grows up and learns a few tough lessons about how life and love (and publishing) work along the way.

It starts with a quotation from Northanger Abbey, “She read all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories with those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives.” Rarely have I seen such an appropriate epigraph. I think Jane Austen would approve- Elle B is something of a modern-day Catherine Morland albeit a lot less irritating. She moves credibly from hopeless naivety and weakness to gradually become a stronger, enjoyable heroine.

The beauty of contemporary women’s fiction is that when it is well executed it tackles some really dark themes with warmth and compassion. Elle B has to face some demons and Happily Ever After sits up there with some of the best that I’ve read in this sense. It does obey some of the conventions that you might expect of “Chick Lit” very closely (a fifth of the way through the book I told my editorial assistant that I could guess who the main character would end up with and I was right) but gosh does the author make you work for the ending you expect and hope for. At times I was worried that it wouldn’t all turn out as I’d hoped. But then when an author makes such arch comments about the wonder that is Bridget Jones, the publishing industry and the incestuous world of book people (there’s a lot of office hook ups in this book but I mean incestuous in a hyperbolic, small-world sense and do not mean to suggest that book people interbreed or liaise with their colleagues), you have to expect that there will be some clever tricks along the way.

If you are looking for an enjoyable read which is light but not excessively so then I would definitely recommend this book. At times it is moving, at others it is “snort tea through your nose” funny. It would make a perfect holiday read and I don’t mean that in a bad way. In fact, I’ll leave you a quote from Eleanor B which in many ways sums up my thoughts on holiday reading:

“If I work hard all year and have two weeks’ holiday in Greece I don’t want some pale, worthy, boring book about middle-class people in London sitting round debating their stupid, self-satisfied lives. Sometimes I want a private jet and a hooker drinking champagne.”

Happily Ever After by Harriet Evans