This novel is about that time in the sixth century A.D. when the whole world got Alzheimer’s.
I’ll explain: this novel opens at an underground warren somewhere in the geographical region we would call the British Isles. The warren is home to elderly couple Axl and Beatrice, who seem to be something of a burden to their community. They live on the periphery of the warren, where the warmth from the communal fire doesn’t reach, so their little dugout room is always cold. On top of that, they are not allowed to have a candle. This decision was reached by their community’s judicial system – whatever that may be – and we are not told why, but we do see a young child try to smuggle them a candle because she feels sorry for them. Comments are made about the fact that Axl and Beatrice don’t work as hard and as fast as the younger people in their community. In the first half of the book, we’re never told what Axl and Beatrice have done to become second-class citizens in their community. Were early-medieval Britons always this disrespectful to the elderly?
We are told that a “mist” has settled over the land in the weeks and months before the novel begins, and this mist causes forgetfulness. Axl and Beatrice know that they have a son, but they don’t remember his name or what he looks like or why he no longer lives with them. Beatrice has a general idea of where he lives, and after some initial exposition she and Axl decide to go on a journey to find him. Beatrice has left the area surrounding their warren more than Axl has, having gone on trading expeditions with the other women, so she is the navigator and guide.
The characters in this novel believe that their landscape is peopled not only with humans and animals but with various supernatural creatures: fairies and ogres and so forth. I know from reading other reviews that these creatures are “real” in the sense that they do eventually appear on the page and do things. So far, though, other than the buried giant of the title – around whom Axl and Beatrice carefully tiptoed on their journey, leaving him safely still buried – these creatures have only been mentioned, not brought to life. As you may have heard, there has been some controversy this week about whether this book is a “fantasy” novel. I think Ishiguro said something to the press to the effect that he hopes bookstores won’t shelve this novel in the fantasy section. I’ve heard a lot of sarcastic responses to the effect that if Ishiguro didn’t want his book shelved in the fantasy section, maybe he should have left out all the dragons and ogres. A fair point. Apparently Ursula K. LeGuin is up in arms about it all. Or at least that’s what the meme I saw on Facebook said.
Of course, the mist of forgetfulness could be seen as a fantasy element as well. If I didn’t know that this debate were going on, I would probably assume that the mist is a metaphor for the beginning of the “dark ages,” which have certainly engulfed the British Isles as depicted in this novel. I know, I know – the dark ages weren’t as “dark” as everyone thinks they were, but they were still pretty dark. I keep looking out for references to whether Axl and Beatrice and/or other characters are literate, and I’ve seen no sign of anyone reading or writing – or even of the idea that they are aware that writing exists. They are aware of the Romans, and at one point they wait out a storm in a ruined Roman villa, but the Roman way of life has long departed. As Britons, Axl and Beatrice are Christians, and they do refer to their priest back in their warren and seek hospitality at a monastery, but overall religion doesn’t seem to touch their lives much. Dragons and ogres and the buried giant seem more real to them than the Christian God. Some of the other characters they meet are Saxons, and Saxons are pagans, and the Britons and the Saxons don’t get along. Axl and Beatrice don’t seem to mind Saxons much, but then again, Axl and Beatrice don’t seem to mind anything much. It almost seems as if they are the mist in some weird way: they just float over the world, right at tree-line.
I can’t remember a time when I was at the halfway point of a novel and had so little idea where it was going. I mean this in a good way: not in the sense that the writing is chaotic or formless but in the sense that Ishiguro has created such a complex and compelling world that the novel could go in any one of dozens of directions. Will Axl and Beatrice find their son? Is Wistan, a warrior they are traveling with, actually their son? (For a while I thought he was; now I think he probably isn’t, but he definitely seems to have a vague memory of Axl from somewhere deep in his past, and I want to know more about that memory.) Will we learn more about the creepy boatman who separates husbands and wives from one another because they can’t prove their love for one another? Will the monks cure Beatrice’s mysterious ailment? What’s the deal with the chalice on the cover? Will we ever find out why Axl and Beatrice were ostracized in their home community? What’s the deal with the weird torture contraption Wistan and Axl found outside the monastery? And will Lord Brennus’s men recruit the she-dragon to fight for them, or will Sir Gawain (yes, the Sir Gawain, of Green Knight fame) kill her first? Never in my life have I cared so much about anything that involved a she-dragon.
Like all of Ishiguro’s work, this novel is slow-paced and contemplative. I am taking my time and enjoying all the directions that this book is taking my imagination. I don’t really care if it is shelved in the fantasy section or not – although as of now I think it’s more of a literary novel. I do recommend it, even if ogres and dragons aren’t usually your thing. I’ll be back on Friday with more to say.