The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguru

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GIANTThe Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguru features themes of memory and forgetting playing out against the type of vague backdrop so beloved of the author.

A great mist has descended on the populace of ancient Britain obscuring the memories of the indigenous Britons and their Saxon neighbours alike.

The novel follows the fortunes of a pair of pilgrims, Beatrice and Axl. Both native Britons are haunted by their lack of memories.

They inhabit a dreamlike post-Roman Britain which is populated by half-imagined monsters such as ogres, pixies and an amnesia inducing dragon.

Determined to regain their past, the pair resolve to undertake a journey to their son’s village where they hope they will be welcomed and find refuge from the mist.

Along the way the couple cross paths with some fellow wayfarers, an exiled Saxon boy who carries a terrible wound, a warrior whose skilful swordplay is matched only by his impeccable politeness, and an aged knight in rusting armour accompanied by his clapped out steed.

These characters, seemingly drawn together by chance, are niggled by a sense that they may know each other. As is often the case with quests, the journey soon evolves into something beyond the characters’ original intentions.

Much controversy, and of course publicity, has greeted Ishiguru’s disavowal of the fantasy genre, with heavy-weights like Ursula Le Guin giving their two cents about the author’s perceived sniffiness towards fantasy.

While I do find more ‘literary writers’ resistance to being identified as having produced genre fiction amusing and somewhat precious, this time I feel myself siding with Ishiguru.

The Buried Giant is not a fantasy novel. Readers of the novel can, and will, argue the toss endlessly, but one particular point disqualified The Buried Giant as fantasy for me. That was the seemingly intentional unreality of its supernatural beings.

To my mind, fantasy seeks to convince us of the literal reality of its monsters. Not that monsters in fantasy are necessarily without a metaphorical dimension, but that the metaphorical dimension functions alongside a sense of the reality of the monster within the text.

When the Nazgûl were hunting Frodo in The Lord of The Rings I could feel them breathing, if ring-wraiths do indeed breathe, down the back of my neck as they mercilessly sought their quarry. The danger they represented in and of themselves seemed very real to me as a reader. In The Buried Giant the fantastical beings are more hallucinatory and less consequential than in fantasy novels.

Some readers have reacted with frustration at the marginal role which Ishiguru has granted the supernatural creatures, perhaps agreeing with Chekhov’s maxim regarding guns:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” The rifles being ogres in this instance.

I for one found these creatures all the more intriguing for their elusiveness and lack of consequence in the story.The monsters in the novel act as beautiful scenery which helps to construct a pleasing  phantasmagoria for the characters to inhabit. I found it liberating to walk by ogres, admiring them in passing, without dwelling too much on them.

The Buried Giant borrows some of the clothing of the fantasy genre but underneath its surface lies a very different beast.

The fantasy elements are a backdrop for the human drama central to the story. Of course fantasy can feature human drama, but in The Buried Giant the novel is almost exclusively concerned with its themes of collective memory, psychic repression and the nature of love and forgiveness. The dragons and sword fights really don’t matter much at all, whereas in fantasy proper, for better or worse, they do.

Literary references ranging from The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to Greek myth are interspersed throughout the tale. These references and fragments contribute to building the novel’s peculiar  kaleidoscopic atmosphere.

I am a big fan of Kazuo Ishiguru’s work and enjoyed The Buried Giant. Perhaps my familiarity with his previous work inoculated me against the disappointment others may have felt with the book.

I never expected balls to the wall fantasy from Mr.Ishiguru, but rather restrained melancholic prose and bitter-sweet musings on memory and forgetting. All of which I found present in abundance.

While The Buried Giant is certainly not the author’s strongest novel, it still has enough going on in it to warrant a reader’s attention. It seems to be a novel which pushed the writer outside of his comfort zone.  The result is this wilfully odd genre bender which is hard to pigeon-hole, and as such worth a look.

I’ve included the link to the original article which sparked the fantasy/not fantasy furore below: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/20/books/for-kazuo-ishiguro-the-buried-giant-is-a-departure.html?_r=0

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

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ISBN:978-1-4722-0032-7

ISBN:978-1-4722-0032-7

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is the title of British fantasy superstar Neil Gaiman’s latest novel. It tells the story of an unnamed protagonist who revisits his childhood hometown while on his way to a wedding. On arriving there he pays a visit to the home of the Hempstocks, a neighbouring family who live on an isolated farm.

The Hempstock family are comprised of three feisty, independent minded women who represent three generations of the family. If you are familiar with fantasy/mythological tropes or know your Macbeth, I needn’t tell you the significance of a triumvirate of females who live outside society…

While visiting the Hempstock house as his adult self the protagonist takes a while to sit by a pond, the “ocean” of the title. Here long forgotten/ magically repressed memories of a childhood adventure come flooding back allowing him to revisit them from his present day adult perspective.

The narrator recounts an incident from his past involving the suicide of a lodger, who stole the protagonist’s father’s car in order to commit the dark deed. This act triggered a sinister supernatural shift which altered the benign world of the narrator’s childhood into something altogether more unsettling. Help comes in the form of Lettie Hempstock, the youngest, in appearance at least, of the Hempstock women.

Lettie helps the narrator battle a supernatural entity that has been causing chaos, by granting wishes in an over literal manner, tending to the baser more materialistic side of human nature. The narrator and Lettie defeat the malign entity, or so it seems. Alas the narrator commits the classic mythological error of not following instruction given to him by the magic literate Lettie down to the tiniest detail.

Gaiman is writer who has a compendious knowledge of global mythology and incorporates these tropes into all his work. Magic as presented in fairy tales and myths is mercilessly legalistic and is defined and regulated by tightly bound ritual contracts. By having his protagonist deviate from the instructions given to him by Lettie, Gaiman pays his mythological dues, and signals to us the reader that there will be consequences.

These consequences come in the form of a sinister new house keeper Ursula Monkton. Ursula insinuates herself into the heart of the narrators family by seducing those around her. To the narrator’s mother she is a young woman with impeccable qualifications for minding children, to his sister a glamorous role model, and to his father an object of sexual desire.

Only the narrator is immune to her charms, as his adult self recounts, “She smiled at us both, brightly. She really was pretty, for a grown up, but when you are seven, beauty is an abstraction, not an imperative. I wonder what I would have done if she had smiled at me like that now: whether I would have handed my mind or my heart or my identity to her for the asking, as my father did.

The narrator’s immediate suspicion of Ursula Monkton soon puts him at odds with the rest of his family. With no one else to rely on he must seek out the Hempstocks for assistance, but this is more easily said than done when you are seven years old and grounded.

The Ocean At The Lane is a fun but rather slight read which is not without its flaws, the primary one being missed opportunity. By using the device of having an adult recount his childhood adventure from the perspective of middle age, Gaiman creates a potentially fascinating way of exploring the disparities between our adult and childhood selves.

Instead of being used to explore the rich psychological seam it promises, this device is used in a rather mechanical way to propel the narrative which doesn’t do justice to the premise of the novel. His narrator credulously recounts his fantastical childhood adventures without once doubting the veracity of these memories.

My other problem with the novel is a recurring one I have with Gaiman’s work, his characters seldom become more than archetypes. Perhaps this is due to the influence of myth on the authors writing where archetypes are the norm and stories are told in broad strokes in order to convey ideas rather than nuance, sadly it doesn’t work well in the novel format. The main character is an empty vessel who reacts to the exigencies of plot in a rather clockwork way.

The supporting characters, with the exception of the Hempstock women, are paper-thin, the mother in particular being an absent cypher. Her existence barely extends beyond the letters used to spell the word ‘mother’ on the page. The Hempstock women are a portrayed with a little more success. Their characters are more rounded and their interaction feels genuine.

The depiction of the Hempstock women is interesting as it reveals a certain laziness on behalf of the author. One gets the feeling that the author was more invested in thesecharacters, their magical nature making them more entertaining to write. The evidence suggests that Gaiman can write characters with a bit more depth, but only when they are of particular interest to him.

All in all, The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is a novel which doesn’t live up to its promise. A tangible element of auto pilot has entered Gaiman’s work and one feels a change in genre might be in order. It is hard not to feel that Gaiman’s writing has suffered since he moved away from comic books to the novel form, a feeling which is confirmed by rereading his majestic Sandman series published by Vertigo comics.

The Ocean At End Of The Lane is by no means terrible it is also not particularly memorable.  This novel will keep Gaiman’s fans happy but is hardly likely to win over the unconverted. Regardless there is a large audience for this kind of thing in our post Harry Potter cultural landscape and the book will no doubt be a smash hit. Expect an inevitable movie version.

The Twelve by Justin Cronin

Justin Cronin’s latest novel, The Twelve, is a sequel to his successful vampire fest The Passage, a book which succeeded in making vampires a scary proposition again as opposed to someone who would make a reliable eternal  life partner. Like its predecessor, The Twelve uses genre tropes from sci-fi, fantasy, and horror mixing them up with a literary sensibility to tell a story which moves between two time periods.

The first is the present day or thereabouts where we see the build up to and immediate aftermath of an epidemic which mutates its victims into “virals”, blood thirsty vampires. In this section we encounter some new characters and observe their attempts to survive the prevailing chaos. The second time period depicted takes place in a post-apocalyptic USA ninety-three years later. The post-apocalyptic time period depicts the fates of the survivors from the California colony, who were the focus of the first novel. We see their lives a few years after the action in The Passage and the consequences of their experiences. Drawn together again by fatalistic circumstances the characters converge to take on the head vampires, the twelve of the title, in order to rid the USA of the plague which afflicts it.

When reading The Passage I found both time periods to be of equal interest, sadly this wasn’t my experience with The Twelve. While the sections set in the present day kept me enthralled I cannot say the same for post-apocalyptic setting. My reasons for this lie in the lack of any sense of real peril created by the “virals” in the future time period.  The characters from the present day are confused and vulnerable which confers them with an aura of imminent mortality. With their survival at stake the reader genuinely feels a vicarious tension when they are in dangerous situations. This is lost in the post-apocalyptic sections due the characters capabilities in dispatching “virals”. Having survived the experiences of The Passage, these grizzled veterans never seem overwhelmed by what they encounter. The effect of this limits the tension, diminishing the horror aspects of the novel. This flaw is compounded further by a few characters having developed super powers since we last saw them.

Cronin seems have a preference for depicting the world in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak. His prose describing the surroundings of the present day is, perhaps inevitably, more vivid than that used to describe the future setting.The most frustrating parts of the novel were what I shall loosely term the ‘metaphysical’ aspects of the novel. Much page space is given over to unsatisfying encounters between characters in an undefined realm which seems to be some sort of mix between a dreamlike state and an afterlife.

These ill-defined mumbo jumbo scenes add nothing to the story, and seem to exist merely to resolve plot points with a deus ex machina where the writer can’t be bothered with detailed plotting.  The worst example of this may be found in the closing chapters where the characters hatch a convincing plan, which would be exciting to read if carried out, only for it to be derailed by one of these silly metaphysical interventions. It seems the characters in the novel had a better idea for how the novel should end than their author who actually wrote it.

On the plus side Cronin does manage to introduce a few worthwhile new villains. The best of these is Lila, an unfortunate expectant mother in the present day time period who will become a deluded monster. Unfortunately this character is squandered undergoing a tedious redemption which left me feeling a little short-changed. The novel suffers from the author’s determination to give characters a happy ending, a facet which didn’t seem so pervasive in the first novel.

While The Twelve had entertaining moments overall I felt disappointed with it, especially as I had enjoyed its predecessor so much.  On the basis of the first book I am willing to be charitable and suggest that this book, the second part of a trilogy is suffering a fate common to second novels in cycles of three, where its own story is sacrificed due to its role in continuing from the previous story while setting up its own sequel. Such demands can limit the scope of the bridging texts robbing them of the freshness of the first book and the finality of the third. Hopefully this is the case with The Twelve and its follow-up, City Of Mirrors, scheduled for a 2014 release will deliver an experience closer in spirit to that of The Passage.