Monday, May 4, 2015

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

There are so many reasons that I loved Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant.

  • Legend of King Arthur viewed from a fresh angle
  • World building: early Britain complete with ogres, pixies and dragons
  • Death as a narrator
  • A journey on foot
  • Distinctive language
  • Love story about two elderly people - I've enjoyed others lately: Etta and Otto and Russell and James (Emma Hooper), and And the Birds Rained Down (Jocelyne Saucier).

During a long period of peace brought about by King Arthur, the people of Britain have been bewitched by a mist of forgetfulness. Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple who struggle to remember details of their shared lives, yet their love for each other remains strong. They embark on a journey to visit their son in another village and encounter many surprises along the way.

The language cast its own spell on me. There's a meditative rhythm to the prose, with lots of dialogue that moves the story along at a steady pace. The dialogue has a distinctly archaic feel, even while using only common words. Everyone is politely formal with each other, including husband and wife:

   "Who knows what goes on with Saxons," said Axl. "We may be better seeking shelter elsewhere tonight."
   "The dark will be soon on us, Axl, and those spears are not intended for us. Besides, there's a woman in this village I was wanting to visit, one who knows her medicines beyond anyone in our own."
   Axl waited for her to say something further, and when she went on peering into the distance, he asked: "And why would you be after medicines, princess?"
   "A small discomfort I feel from time to time. This woman might know of something to soothe it."
   "What sort of discomfort, princess? Where does it trouble you?"
   "It's nothing. It's only because we're needing to shelter here I'm thinking of it at all."
   "But where does it lie, princess? This pain?"
   "Oh..." Without turning to him, she pressed a hand to her side, just below the ribcage, then laughed. "It's nothing to speak of. You can see, it hasn't slowed me walking here today."
   "It hasn't slowed you one bit, princess, and I've been the one having to beg we stop and rest."
   "That's what I'm saying, Axl. So it's nothing to worry about."
   "It hasn't slowed you down at all. In fact princess, you must be as strong as any woman half your age. Still, if there's someone here to help with your pain, what's the harm in going to her?"
   "That's all I was saying Axl. I've brought a little tin to trade for medicines."
   "Who wants these little pains? We all have them, and we'd all be rid of them if we could. By all means, let's go to this woman if she's here, and those guards let us pass."

The relationship between Axl and Beatrice is characterized by their steadfast loyalty and gentleness, yet complexities remain. If the mist of forgetfulness is lifted, will that bode well or ill for them? And what about mortality, must it be faced alone?

The Buried Giant is an atmospheric and immersive reading experience.

Readalikes set in historical early Britain: 7th-century - Hild (Nicola Griffith); 9th-century - The Edge on the Sword (Rebecca Tingle); 5th-century - The Skystone (Jack Whyte) and The Lantern Bearers (Rosemary Sutcliff). I'm not sure of the exact time period of Harvest (Jim Crace) - maybe 16th-century - but it has a similar clear and meditative style of prose. See also Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation by W.S. Merwin, and/or an amusing retelling of Sir Gawain's legend that is suitable for all ages - The Adventures of Sir Gawain the True (Gerald Morris).

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