Thursday, July 22, 2021

Book 294: The Buried Giant

"She began to make her way towards the cairn, and something about the way she did so, her shoulders hunched against the wind, caused a fragment of recollection to stir on the edges of Axl's mind. The emotion it provoked, even before he could hold it down, surprised and shocked him, for mingled with the overwhelming desire to go to her now and shelter her, were distinct shadows of anger and bitterness. She had talked of a long night spent alone, tormented by his absence, but could it be he too had known such a night, or several, of similar anguish? Then, as Beatrice stopped before the cairn and bowed her head to the stones as if in apology, he felt both memory and anger growing firmer, and a fear made him turn away from her."

Dates read: February 5-10, 2019

Rating: 5/10

When I was in middle school, I was on the swim team. I wasn't very fast, but I enjoyed being on the team and going to meets. So when I went to high school, I joined the team at that level. It was a whole different game: our local pool was closed for renovations most of the year, so getting to practices (an hour before school and two hours after) took a long time and I was perfectly miserable. I told my mom I wanted to quit. She insisted that I stay on the team, and I swore that if she didn't let me drop it, I would never seriously swim again. She thought I was bluffing. I wasn't. That was over 20 years ago and I haven't swum a lap since.

I don't especially regret this, I do still work out regularly and the way that chlorine dried out my hair and skin is something I don't miss at all. But more than a disinclination to swim for exercise, what keeps me away from the pool is remembering how angry I was when I had to keep swimming for months after I no longer wanted to. In Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant, remembering is a struggle for the residents of an immediately post-Arthurian era Britain. Axl and Beatrice are an older couple, Britons, who have been relegated to a restricted existence in the warren-like community they live in, but they don't know quite why. They're sure that they would get better treatment with their son, who lives in a neighboring community, so they take the highly unusual step of leaving to go to him.

Their journey takes an unexpected turn almost immediately. At their first stop, a Saxon village where Beatrice often goes to trade, there's a commotion. A young man named Edwin has been abducted by ogres, and though he's rescued by traveling warrior Wistan, the villagers are suspicious of a bite he's sustained during his captivity. Wistan and Edwin flee, taking Axl and Beatrice with them. They encounter, among others, an elderly Sir Gawain. Both of the fighting men claim to be on a quest to kill the dragon Querig, whose breath turns out to be the reason for the mist of forgetfulness that lays over the land...which could have surprisingly significant consequences if it were to go away.

Ishiguro loves a slow-paced, dreamy sort of narrative that reveals its secrets slowly, but there's an unfocused quality to this book that undermines the effectiveness of that approach. The story threads: Axl and Beatrice's marriage and journey towards their son, the Arthurian past, the simmering tensions between the Britons and the Saxons, and a quest to slay a literal dragon...they're not interwoven as tightly and neatly as they need to be to make the whole thing work. The characters have the level of complexity typical of myth and legend, which is to say that they're all quite shallow, more symbolic than realistic. I found it difficult to get emotionally invested in them, despite the fact that Axl and Beatrice's love seems like it should be what roots the story in genuine feeling.

Although the story itself doesn't quite come off, Ishiguro does do solid work on hitting deep themes. The power of remembering (or alternately, of forgetting) on human relationships, both on the personal level, as between Axl and Beatrice, or the group level, as between the Saxons and Britons, is powerfully rendered. The prose is lovely and elegant. I get what Ishiguro was going for here, but the reality is that it just didn't really work. The idea of a fantasy-set novel from an author I love for his ability to evoke strong emotions turned out better than the actual execution. Unless you're really just determined to read everything Ishiguro has written, or you're really looking for a book that's all theme and not much else, I'd skip this one. 
One year ago, I was reading: Cat's Eye
Two years ago, I was reading: How To Be Good

Three years ago, I was reading: The Romanov Empress
Four years ago, I was reading: Me Talk Pretty One Day
Five years ago, I was reading: The White Queen

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