Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant bolsters the list of fantasy genre writing that pushes its boundaries and should invigorate the genre’s authors and fans.
I’m particularly delighted by it for its focus, an elderly couple of Britons, Axl and Beatrice, who leave their settlement for one they believe their son is at, nearby.
They believe that the mist that surrounds them, their people and their land is responsible for its collective amnesia. They can barely recollect fragments of their life together and leave their settlement to see their son to reconnect with him before they forget him.
The cast expands by only three more; Arthurian legend’s own Sir Gawain, now elderly, a dangerous Saxon warrior Wistan and a boy who becomes his charge after receiving a mysterious bite.
As befits an author of Ishiguro’s stature, the nature of the mist, the fragile couple’s fears and hopes, and their fate increasingly binding with that of the others towards answers and understanding from ignorance is masterfully played. The prose is lush yet minimalist, a sort of meticulous impressionism that I found fascinating to read, as a writer.
More important than that, here is a fantasy novel minus almost all the epic, that chooses fragile protagonists and brings to life the very simple and awful dangers of merely living in dark age Britain. Swordfights are over in barely a blow, warriors few and far between, gauging each other like gunfighters before weapons are drawn, knowing the outcome, the doom of each, as sumo wrestlers supposedly do before they make contact. Even scratches from thorns are feared because of infections that cannot be cured. This is a brutal world with death always only moments away.
The tension builds as memories are jogged, suggestions that Axl is not all he seems, that either he or Beatrice may have hurt each other in the past. All of them hide secrets, or their secrets are hidden from them. All are revealed entwined like the cords of a rope.
The theme of memory and forgetting is writ large and small as we learn what the mist hides. Bookending the novel are scenes with a boatman who ferries people over a river to a far island of rest and bliss, but will not ferry couples if they don’t believe the couple truly love each other, though such refusal comes when only one is ferried across, parting the apparently unworthy forever.
The novel is thus primarily about an old couple’s strength of love and devotion, and what tests that. The wider world they’re in could well be manifestations of this theme, the other characters ciphers.
This is a deceptively uncomplicated novel of great emotional power. Arguably it would be hard to achieve some of the impact it has in a fully secondary world, but I applaud the razor focus on the fragility of love.
The Quarantined City by James Everington is a fascinating novel about a man called Fellows, living in a city under quarantine looking for the work of a mysterious and obscure author. He finds a series of his short stories, but after reading the first one, it appears reality has been subtly changed.
It was interesting to follow The Buried Giant with another novel that explored memory and reality. This one is quite gothic, but far from old-fashioned. The short stories are taut little horrors in their own right but Everington cleverly weaves them into the world Fellows is, apparently, in. It is a complex construct, like clockwork, a post-modern ghost story that bears the essential and classic hallmarks of a ghost story, a flawed protagonist that sees his world and certainties gradually and subtly unravel, until he is fearing and questioning everything, unable to escape except forward to the inevitable climax.
The ending? Let me know what you think :)