If you’ve read any of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels, you know that not only can he write beautiful prose but that he also weaves interesting, compelling stories.
For an author who has written about widely divergent themes: life among the British gentry and serving classes (The Remains of the Day) and a group of schoolchildren being farmed for body parts (Never Let Me Go), his latest takes a leap into entirely new directions.
Call it an on the road/historical/Arthurian/ attempt-to-find-and-slay-a-giant-novel. This giant, who lives in Britain after the Anglo Saxon wars, spumes up dense clouds that cause people to lose their memories.
Beatrice and Axl, two very old Britons, find themselves denied candles in their village, forced to spend their nights in the cold dark, and are treated shabbily in other ways. They decide to leave and attempt a long arduous journey to see their only child, a son, who has not returned to the village for many years. Beatrice suffers from an unnamed illness that makes her very frail but she’s determined to see their son again.
Because of the endless polluted mists, neither she nor Axl can remember why their son left, or why he has not returned. Axl vaguely recalls an argument just before they parted, so the old couple want to make amends.
In one village where they spend the night, the residents mob a young boy who has a weird bite on his skin. They are so angry that Axl fears for the boy's life, and rushes to his rescue, but the mob attacks him instead. After leaving this village they find this boy again accompanied by a Saxon. Long ago, Axl fought against the Saxons, and the country is just starting to heal from the vicious wars.
Axl and Beatrice agree to travel with them, because the Saxon promises to help the couple reach their destination. They feel sorry for the boy too, but they are also leery of his bite.
While trying to cross a bridge, guards with swords detain them. When the Saxon sees them coming, he concocts a plan to play the fool. He also advises the couple to say that the boy has come with them. So the Saxon lolls his head, wags his tongue while the guards draw swords and prepare to spear him. But his disguise succeeds at least until the guard realizes later that the boy might be the boy bitten by the dragon, and chases them again.
The party also meets elderly Sir Gawain, one of the knights or Arthur’s Round Table. The king has commanded him to slay the buried giant. At one point, the Saxon accuses him of not really trying to kill the beast. Why else would it still be alive?
The couple decide to visit a monastery even though it is out of the way and high on a mountain because they heard a monk there offers excellent counseling. But alas, the monastery was not what they thought. Around its windows and parapets, huge ravens swarm eager for bites of flesh. There is also a large tower that looks burnt, and has a suspicious platform on which it looks like battles have been fought, and enemies thrown off. Later the Saxon discovers a weird torture device in an out-building. And yes, those hungry ravens continue to batter the hatches.
Ishiguro weaves history, Arthurian legend, and medieval fear of those different from us into a wonderful parable, but at heart, this is a story of a long marriage, how two people survive both the rough and calm seas of life, trying to bridge their differences, and caring for each other despite mistakes, arguments, hard feelings and the chaos of a world gone mad around them.
For an entirely different take on England long ago, try Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders: a novel of the plague.