It’s a dark time for England. Society is fragmented after the withdrawal of the Romans, and tensions between Britons and Saxons are on the rise. In this dreamlike, timeless place, where ogres and dragons still roam the land, Axl and Beatrice set out on a journey to visit their son. They come to realise that something has taken their memories, and determine to recover their past.
If I had to describe this book in one word, it would be ‘haunting’. Ishiguro does a brilliant job of creating a world where all the usual markers of identity – time, geography, history – are lost. The more I think about it, the more impressive this seems, on a technical level at least. How can an author create characters that don’t really know themselves? Far from explaining to us who they are and what they’re doing, the characters here engage in a sort of anti-exposition as they try to piece together, or even conceal, their own motivations. They often scarce believe their own eyes, and are troubled by recollections and sensations that seem to emerge from a lurking, unknowable past.
It’s very disorientating, and I found it interesting that – while we know very little about Axl and Beatrice – I found myself rooting for them, simply because I had known them the longest. In the absence of any marker of personality, morality or any of the other things that make us care about a character, the simple act of shared time became a basis for caring. Which I suppose is the point. It reminded me of the idea that every villain is the hero of their own story- there are no absolutes. And if you can’t even recall past events and actions, how can you tell good people from bad? Or even right from wrong?
There’s a fantastic sense that, while it may be vital to remember the past, it is also painful; that the mist only works because, deep down, the people want to forget. Wistan is (eventually) clear and eloquent in his defence of his actions – the only person who ever really is. But he’s also harsh, brittle, unyielding. The truth can be painful. Forgetting is comfortable, easier.
Well, almost. Because some things can’t quite be forgotten. And those few snatches of half remembered events and relationships can destabilize perfectly functional, well ordered lives and worlds.
Perhaps forgiveness isn’t something that can be chosen, deliberately brought forth from yourself; it has to just come naturally. It’s either in your heart or it isn’t. Forgiveness, then, isn’t an absence of malice or anger or a by-product of forgetting. It is an active presence, something that exists by itself and on its own terms. You can’t compel forgiveness.
Like love, then. No one chooses to love or be loved, it’s just there. Unspoken and inexplicable. Which is marvellous, in a way, very unearthly and pure. But in the real world, is it a good thing for such uncontrollable, even baseless, sensations to have so much control over us?
This is the tension at the heart of the story. We need each other, need to connect, yet the roots of those connections are tenuous, even ridiculous. Is a love dependent on forgetting worth less than one that endures perfect recollection? Every quarrel, every perceived slight? Is a perfect love even possible? Even human? We’re all flawed, after all – we all make mistakes. Is love divine, then? Coming from God, not from within ourselves?
There’s a scene where Beatrice, perhaps sensing a parting is inevitable, begs her husband to remember the love that currently exists between them. But, you can’t really remember a feeling, can you? You can recall if something made you sad or happy etc, but not the actual way you felt, the sensation of it. Perfect recollection is impossible. So, is forgetting all that bad?
Maybe there’s a distinction between the personal good and the communal good. Forgotten history is repeated history, after all. With the elderly knight Sir Gawain in his rusting armour and the crumbling Roman villa, there is a sense that the world has stagnated, yet the rumbling tensions between different tribes suggests that a reckoning is also due. Society is stuck, and the situation can’t sustain itself- something’s going to give. Painful remembrance is the price for peace, the only way real forgiveness can happen and for society to cohere and progress. But for Axl and Beatrice, those returned memories prove more destructive.
This all sounds like the book is incredibly intellectual, a philosophical exercise, but that’s not the case. It is a strange and in some ways challenging novel. The language itself is not difficult, but the characters recall so little, are so unsure of themselves, they speak in an almost childlike, generic manner. I would find it difficult to describe their personalities. Yet after spending so long with Axl and Beatrice, the slow accumulation of detail about them made me deeply invested in their relationship. The realisation that their son is dead, and that they are probably parted forever, was surprisingly affecting.
This is definitely not a book for everyone. I’m not even sure I ‘enjoyed’ it. But it has definitely gotten under my skin, and I found myself thinking about the story long after I finished reading. The sense of loss, the simple sadness of the ending, really stuck with me.
One to avoid if you want fun, light read, then. But if you’re looking for something a bit different, give The Buried Giant a go.
What did you think? Are you a fan of the author? How does this compare to his other work? Did the twisted fantasy tropes work for you? Let me know below!