Claire-Louise Bennett: Pond

The Stinging Fly Press, an offshoot of the literary magazine, has made itself a publisher to watch with its careful selection of debut writers, many of whom have gone on to award-winning, bidding-war status. They published the first books by IMPAC-winner Kevin Barry, Irish Book of the Year-winner Mary Costello and Guardian First Book Award-winner Colin Barrett. So this new book was on my radar, though it wasn’t until Twitter began filling with praise, and the press agreed, that I picked it up.

Claire-Louise Bennett: Pond

Pond is described in the blurb as a ‘collection’ but also as having unity: a “chronicle of the pitfalls and pleasures of a solitudinous life told by an unnamed woman living on the cusp of a coastal town.” That solitudinous is a wink to the reader – expect more of that sort of thing, because this is a book which denies any separability of the traditional elements of a work of fiction. The language is the character is the style is the story. It’s all about the words: one of those books that makes you realise that the story could not be told, the character could not exist, in any other style; and then makes you wonder why that isn’t the case with more books. The style is not something overlaid on pre-existing content: the style is the substance.

Which means it makes sense that the stories here are similar, often hard to tell apart in memory, as most are told in the same way (and all but the final story in the first person). It is a digressive, repetitive, obsessive voice, which worries at memories, circles around experiences and alights on the same thoughts over and over. It is a picture of a flywheeling mind, in danger of coming apart, which often reminded me of Keith Ridgway’s broken narrator in the ‘Marching Songs’ chapter from Hawthorn & Child. In the story ‘Morning, Noon, & Night’, the consistency of voice covers everything beautifully, and the only way to present this properly is to quote it at length. It gives us meticulous rumination, such as when our woman thinks about how to arrange and display fruit:

Pears don’t mix well. Pears should always be small and organised nose to tail in a bowl of their very own and perhaps very occasionally introduced to a stem of the freshest redcurrants, which ought not to be hoisted like a mantle across the freckled belly of the topmost pear, but strewn a little further down so that some of the scarlet berries loll and bask between the slowly shifting gaps.

The description is comic in its grandiosity, and she rarely says something straightforwardly when she can hide it behind protective language. After ranging across subjects so wildly that the reader can just about keep her in sight, she interrupts herself:

Still, as I’ve said, none of this has anything to do with now whatsoever. I don’t know what it has to do with and as a matter of fact I’m not sure what now is about either.

This relieves the reader, like a good joke, and despite its density, Bennett’s prose is often funny. Reflecting on bathrooms, the narrator observes that she doesn’t like en suites: “as a rule I think it’s much nicer to leave a room entirely before entering another.” But at the same time it reminds us that these stories are often about the permeable barrier between inside and outside. The view we get of the external world is heavily filtered, and closely internalised. This makes a change from most first person narratives, which give us a uncluttered landscape and ignore the thickets and dead ends of how we really think. In ‘The Big Day’, we get an extrapolation of the quote above which brings the point home:

English, strictly speaking, is not my first language by the way. I haven’t yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words to say things. I expect I will always have to do it that way; regrettably I don’t think my first language can be written down at all. I’m not sure it can be made external you see.

Claire-Louise Bennett: Pond

Sometimes a direct emotional statement breaks through all this diversion and play, given extra force by the contrast with its surroundings: “On occasion, I have gone quite out of my mind with love.” But the rest is an attempt to enable us to, as the narrator wishes, “just spend five minutes beneath my skin and feel what it’s like. Feel the savage swarming magic I feel.” And as the book goes on, she seems less and less like an eccentric outsider, and more and more like one of us: or perhaps it’s that the language temporarily reshapes the reader’s brain into sympathy with its way of thinking. Why else, after all, would I feel repeatedly drawn back to the stories even with little expectation of understanding them in the traditional sense?

That is to say, there are no straightforward plots, no simple stories in these stories, but this goes back to the inseparability of the elements. The language, full of curlicues and recirculations, would be irritating if delivered by a straightforward narrator – but it could not be delivered by a straightforward narrator. It is part of her. And with its richness and deformations – which become more pronounced in the later stories, particularly ‘The Gloves Are Off’ – I felt no desire for the longest stories, about 18 pages, to be any longer. That’s enough of that sort of thing. But Bennett’s resistance to A-to-B plots doesn’t stop her from filling the stories Pond with some of the strongest endings I’ve seen. In ‘The Big Day’, our woman ends her account of a new home by discovering a pond, in a way that is blunt with symbolism but powerful:

It’s not a very deep pond after all. I always believed they were endlessly deep. But when I took something down there one day I needed to get rid of fast, a broken, precious thing, I dropped it in the water and it did not sink and go on sinking. It just sort of wedged itself and was horribly visible. And within moments lots of very small things, some of them creatures I suppose, collected and oscillated, slowly, along the smooth crevices of its broken precious parts.

There is a literary awareness too, from the title of the opening story, ‘Voyage in the Dark’, echoing Jean Rhys’s greatest novel, to a story, ‘Control Knobs’, where the narrator ruminates on Marlen Haushofer’s dystopian novel The Wall. The stories, too, are arranged carefully, with very short pieces alternating with the longer ones. Sometimes, like ‘Stir-Fry’, they are only a few lines long, almost one-liners with a tweak – Lydia Davis length – which seems as good a place as any to have a go at giving this review an ending as strong as Bennett’s stories:

I just threw my dinner in the bin. I knew as I was making it I was going to do that,
…..so I put in it all the things I never want to see again.

Benjamin Wood: The Ecliptic

Why is the life and world of the visual artist such an appealing subject for novelists? Perhaps I’m overstating it, but I’ve seen or read several in the last year (Jonathan Gibbs’s Randall, Niven Govinden’s All the Days and Nights, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian) and have strong memories of others: Patrick McGrath’s Port Mungo, Patrick White’s The Vivisector. Could it be that writers like telling painters’ stories because it enables them to write about the creative process – so familiar to them – but in a slightly, well, sexier form? Benjamin Wood: The Ecliptic The Ecliptic is such a book and more. Its narrator is an artist, and in the second part of the book we get a full-blooded account of her development as a painter, but there is more to it than that. We are told this only after we already know that she – Elspeth Conroy – is blocked, can no longer paint, and has come to Portmantle, an artists’ retreat on Heybeliada off the coast of Turkey, to rediscover her muse.

At Portmantle, established “to rescue the depleted minds of artists like us”, everyone has a pseudonym. Elspeth is known as Knell, and she is one of the longest-staying residents there, along with Quickman, MacKinney and Pettifer. (They are, respectively, novelist, playwright and architect, so the four friends conveniently cover a range of creative forms.) Artists leave Portmantle when they have completed a new piece of work, so remaining there for years indicates serious stoppage. Reading this, we wonder whether the approach of going to special place to be an artist and nothing else is more likely to cement the blockage than dislodge it. Is seeking “to rid ourselves of external influence and opinion” a good idea? (Answers accepted from anyone who has tried to write anything while ping-ponging between Word doc and social media feed.)

At the time of the story, it is the mid-1970s and Elspeth, now in her late thirties, has been there for over a decade. Other guests (“transients”) come and go but the four friends seem permanent fixtures. They are intrigued by the arrival one day of a teenage boy, seemingly a musician, known as Fullerton. (The book opens in sturdy read-on fashion: “He was just seventeen when he came to Portmantle, a runaway like the rest of us.”) You might say that they needed something to disrupt their stasis. There’s something affected about them – Quickman smokes a pipe, Knell describes weather as “clement”, they play backgammon – and precious too, so it would take a heart of stone to read MacKinney’s complaint that “I can’t even put down a simple stage direction without questioning myself” without laughing. On the other hand she puts their struggles in perspective when she says:

Do you know how many plays I’ve written in my life? Thirty-six. Know how many of those were actually any good? One. One! If I had a market stall, I’d be in penury by now.

This perfectionism could be the root of their problem, or a corollary of it. “The making part is what we’re addicted to, the struggle, the day-to-day,” Fullerton observes. Or, when Pettifer complains that “I’m useless in every respect, but especially in the field of architecture”, it could be a version of Thomas Mann’s observation that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for anyone else. But the clever thing is that the rest of the book makes such struggles feel vital and important, not silly and trivial, through immersing us in Elspeth’s past.

After a dramatic conclusion to the first part of the book (“One of Four”, it says here: geddit?), we get that entirely engaging and in-depth portrait of her birth and growth as a painter. She leaves her Scots upbringing and moves to London, where she has an informal apprenticeship with artist Jim Culvert, has early success, tussles (and more) with a critic, becomes sufficiently important through one series of work to be hung in the Tate, and then – stops. It is the ecliptic of the title that stops Elspeth, when she agrees to a commission to paint a mural for a new observatory, and cannot determine how best to depict the mysterious – well, what is it exactly?

ecliptic, n. a great circle on the celestial sphere representing the sun’s apparent path among the stars during the year.

All this is tremendous stuff, engaging, persuasive and full of life. And at its end it brings us back to when Elspeth – Knell – joined Portmantle, and so we skip back to the ‘now’ of the story. Here the book adopts a third form, after the Secret History-esque buddy drama of part one, and the life-in-full of part two. It turns into a mystery, which I can’t say much about to avoid spoiling it. It might be enough to say that it reminded me obscurely of Theodore Roszak’s underrated novel Flicker, which was a sort of mad conspiracy theory thriller about cinema. In The Ecliptic there is just as much eyebrow-raising implausibility, but the pages turn so smoothly – I rattled through its 465 pages in a couple of (bank holi)days – that quibbles flee. Indeed, its craziness is much of its appeal.

If there’s a weakness, it’s in the revelation that comes near the end, which makes things too rational (but at the same time, paradoxically, explains both the neatness and the implausibilities earlier). In particular it seems a stretch to compare The Ecliptic, as my proof copy does, with the work of Kazuo Ishiguro, for its “delight in playing with our perceptions”. It certainly has a wide range and an impressive capacity for turning things upside down, but there isn’t really that sense of existential rudderlessness that Ishiguro excels in. Then again, to say that a book fails to live up to one of the greatest writers of fiction in English is hardly a knock. Another comparison the blurb makes, to David Mitchell, is closer to the mark.

All in all The Ecliptic is a satisfying, irresistible novel with that combination of storytelling punch and literary sensibility which can, with luck, be the sign of a big commercial and critical success. I was going to say that it marks Wood out as a writer to watch, but that usually seems to me to be code for “this book isn’t all that good, but the next one might be.” Better instead to say that he’s a writer to read.

Leonard Michaels: Sylvia

Leonard Michaels (1933 – 2003) is one of those writers who has attained minor icon status in the USA (his fiction is published there by a classics imprint) but has never really taken off in the UK. In his introduction to this book – its first British publication – David Lodge suggests that this is because Michaels’ “concentrated, genre-busting” stories, widely considered to be the best of his work, “were challengingly unfamiliar in content and form, written with an intensity that demanded a corresponding effort from the reader.” For example his story ‘City Boy’, included in The Paris Review’s Object Lessons anthology as one of “the greatest short stories of the past sixty years”, mixes realism and fantasy without distinction. His late stories about mathematician Nachman (“People called Nachman Nachman, as if he were a historical figure”) are semi-comic scenes from a life and the “high point of [his] career”. Michaels also wrote two short novels, The Men’s Club (1981) and Sylvia (1993). I read the former a year or two ago without remembering much about it, so I was interested to see that the reliable Daunt Books had reissued this.

Leonard Michaels: Sylvia

Sylvia started life as a short-story-length memoir, published in a collection of journalism and other pieces, and was extended to stand alone a few years later. Although presented as fiction, it is, Lodge tells us, “[Michaels’] own story”. This at least frees it from the questions of author-as-narrator that dogged Michael’s contemporary Philip Roth: this time we know it’s him. But it invites exactly the same judgements for non-literary reasons (“What is being done to silence this man?” a rabbi asked on publication of Roth’s first book, Goodbye Columbus, in 1959), because the narrator of Sylvia is often as unsympathetic, as crudely and unreconstructedly male, as Alex Portnoy or Mickey Sabbath.

But first: it’s 1960 and our narrator, Leonard, aged 27, has arrived in New York. He’s an aspiring writer, a fortunate young man “humoured by the world”, one who “could give no better account of himself than to say, ‘I love to read’.” In short order a friend introduces him to a young Asian woman, Sylvia, and “the question of what to do with my life was resolved for the next four years.” Sylvia is a book of memory (the epigraph, from Adam Zagajewski’s poem ‘Fruit‘, is “How unattainable life is, it only reveals / its features in memory, / in nonexistence”), and most of it is told long after the events – was, presumably, written long after the events, so the telling has the richness of long thought and is dotted with the sort of details that crystallise and colour over time. Sylvia tells Leonard of her mother’s death:

She said her mother became increasingly sensitive as she declined, until even the odour of the telephone cord beside her bed nauseated her.

Memories come too from the journal entries that are peppered through the book, which are real and contemporaneous, according to the introduction, and are artless enough that they have a ring of authenticity (that’s to say, I don’t think they add much to the book other than verisimilitude).

Perhaps inevitably – it wouldn’t be much of a story otherwise – Leonard and Sylvia quickly move from fucking to fighting: or rather, to both. “No passport was required. There wasn’t even a border. Time was fractured, there was no cause and effect, and one thing didn’t even lead towards another. As in a metaphor, one thing was another. Raging, hating, I wanted to fuck, and she did too.” Pretty soon, Leonard is spending more time at his parents, including once when Sylvia rings to tell him she has slit her wrists. (Don’t fear spoilers, by the way – we’re only on page 30. This one’s a wild ride.) Here we get relieving bursts of black humour, as Leonard resents his mother detaining him as she makes up a food parcel to take with him as he returns to see if Sylvia really has tried to kill herself. “She suspected things were bad on MacDougal Street, but if I left without the food she’d know they were very bad.”

Leonard Michaels

Even when recollected in tranquility, Leonard’s memories of Sylvia can be brutal. He suggests that the fact that she is (as he sees it) “certifiably, technically nuts” may be connected to her lack of interest in current affairs. “Sylvia never read a newspaper. I told her what was happening. She didn’t care one bit. I told her anyhow.” Because “I had a vague notion that mental health is more or less proportional to the attention you give to matters outside your head.” David Lodge in his introduction seems happy to go along with this, referring to the book as having “its place in the extensive modern literature of psychopathology.” Meanwhile, Leonard, with frankness that’s either refreshing or foolhardy, finds himself “giddy with pleasure” to learn from friends that they all fight with their partners too.

I felt happily irresponsible. Countless men and women, I supposed, all over America, were tearing each other to pieces. How great. I was normal.

The recognition makes him feel “miserably normal … Whatever people thought of me, I could think it first of them. I could flaunt my shame as a form of contempt for others.” His contempt is never more flaunted than when discussing Sylvia’s friend Agatha, a beauty whose voice “suggested a low-voltage brain” and whose boyfriends, “if they weren’t vicious when they met Agatha, she helped them discover it in themselves.” And his thoughts on women generally are – what? – candid, and authentic-seeming. Teaching students, he is surrounded by “gorgeous girls with olive skin and lustrous, wavy hair. I never touched any of them. They had the handwriting of little children and drew bubbles over the letter i.” It’s for the reader to decide if this is just innate – he’s a man – or a reaction to the increasing domestic blitz of life with Sylvia. By this time, their fights “had become so ugly that the gay couple across the hall wouldn’t ever say hello to us.”

All this must end, and so it does – but how? “It would have been easy to leave Sylvia. Had it been difficult, I might have done it.” This is a short book, at 130 pages, but intense, and as ugly as it is beautiful. Not incidentally, it provides a convincing portrait of 1960s New York, from a man who pictured it romantically as a boy, then lived in it unromantically as an adult. It contains self-contained jewels like an account of a Lenny Bruce gig which left Michaels feeling “a pleasing terror, like leaping from a high place.” His book has a not dissimilar effect.

Iván Repila: The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse

This short novella – and that is not a pleonasm, as the book could not be much more than 20,000 words long top to tail – is one of the most unpleasant stories I’ve read in ages. You can take that how you will, though I read so many books without finishing them, and finish so many without reviewing them, that you might have guessed even by now that I do recommend it.

Iván Repila: The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse

The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (2013, tr. 2015 by Sophie Hughes) is another book – like Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant – which both attracts and repels consideration as an allegory. It is as grim as a good fairy tale and has a strong, simple story: two brothers, referred to only as Big and Small, trapped in a well. The opening line sets up the oppositions at the heart of the book:

‘It looks impossible to get out,’ he says. And also: ‘But we’ll get out.’

The well is too deep to climb, with walls that slope steeply overhead “like an empty pyramid with no tip.” We don’t know why they are in there, though others know about their predicament, so we presume it’s not accidental. Initially, they exert a lot of effort and energy in trying to escape, shouting for help but soon abandoning that, and culminating in a failed attempt by Big to throw Small up and out to safety.

Big shouts Now, and lets go, and with his eyes still closed Small breaks free and he takes off from the earth towards the sun like a comet of bones, and for just a few seconds he is flying, but he smashes, literally smashes into the wall, producing a dull crunch that drowns out any cry; and then, unconscious and bleeding from the mouth, he falls the few metres that separate him and the floor and lands on the dizzy body of his brother, like a circus act that ends in a bundle of piled up flesh, and no applause.

You can see the violent physicality of the writing. This is a feature of the story throughout, and Repila never permits the reader to look away as the brothers’ bodies and minds deteriorate over weeks and months. (The tally of days they have been trapped is given by the non-consecutive chapter numbers, all of which are primes: perhaps because like prime numbers, the brothers are indivisible, inseparable, akin to the twins in Kristof’s The Notebook.) The presence of the physical quickly becomes grotesque, from hunger fantasies Big has about biting into Small’s eyes “and suck[ing] out the white jelly”, to Small coughing up “green mucus, thick like jam.” When the brothers have been starving for weeks (day 47), they capture a bird that flies into the well, but fearing that their wasted stomachs will be unable to cope with the meat, they instead allow it to rot and then eat the maggots that grow from it. As their captivity and isolation continues, the brothers leave civility and sociality far behind. There are hallucinations, jumbled language and howls of hatred and inchoate rage:

“Life is wonderful, but living is unbearable. I’d like to pare down existence. To pronounce over a century one long, inimitable word, and for that word to be my true testament.”

Their unexplainable behaviour may, it turns out, have straight thinking behind it, as Small wastes away and Big tries to keep fit with exercise and 80% of the food. We know, for example – I’ve concealed this for longer than the book does – that they do have food, but that they won’t eat it because it’s to be given to their mother. This emphasises the story’s unreality and its status as allegory for – what? The text explicitly suggests numerous interpretations. An environmental fable (“In his dream the well is big like a city. Some say the citizens are all starving because the land exhausted itself”). A parable of leaving childhood (“‘Then what is this anger I can feel inside?’ ‘You’re becoming a man'”). Of man’s inhumanity, or the artist’s cruelty, when Small fantasises that he is “the boy who stole Attila’s horse to make shoes out of his hooves” and uses them to walk over people. “I felt important, like a painter.”

But the strongest fit is with an allegory suggested by the book’s two epigraphs, from the surprising combination of Margaret Thatcher and Bertholt Brecht: of economic inequality, and revolutionary rage. It is no coincidence then that the well is a pyramid, representing the structure of society, or that the brothers know their place and quickly give up crying for help. They are at the bottom of the pile, but the story suggests that they will not be there forever, and the ending leaves a strong and frightening image first of capitulation, then of revenge. Certainly this is a book which packs huge weight for its size; the same sort of disparity as between Big and Small, or between what we expect, and what we might get.

‘Once we are up there, we’ll throw a party.’

‘A party?’

‘Yes.’

‘The kind with balloons and lights and cakes?’

‘No. The kind with rocks, torches and gallows.’

Dorthe Nors: Karate Chop / Minna Needs Rehearsal Space

Here is my review in the Guardian of Dorthe Nors’ first books to be translated into English, the back-to-back volume containing the excellent short story collection Karate Chop and the brilliant novella (or, as the author has it, “novel in headlines”) Minna Needs Rehearsal Space. This edition is published in the UK by Pushkin Press. In the US, Graywolf Press published Karate Chop last year and will issue Minna next year.

Dorthe Nors: Karate Chop / Minna Needs Rehearsal Space

 

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant

This book comes freighted with more expectations than many – Ishiguro may, after all, be the only novelist of his lauded generation who has never produced a bad or even mediocre novel. But there are fears, too – his last two books (Never Let Me Go, and the story cycle Nocturnes) are my least favourites. Is he on the slide?

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant

My first response to The Buried Giant was to realise how rudderless we feel in the teeth of a new book which is really new, sui generis, and how much we rely on – or at least use as a springboard – existing and received opinion about strange classics. I first read it a couple of months before publication, and came away buzzing with admiration but otherwise not knowing precisely what to think. (It was, I think, my desire for precision that was the problem.) I spoke to several others who had read it early, and a theme recurred – “befuddled”, “scratching my head”, “scrambled” – which reassured me at least that I had not missed something blindingly obvious.

So how can a book which, on many levels, baffles the reader be a rewarding experience? Easy: because that is not the reader’s only response. There is a huge amount in this book – it contains multitudes – and its half-life after reading is long. Part of my problem with it was not a problem with it at all: that afterwards, I couldn’t settle for a time into anything else as I kept wanting to return to The Buried Giant. Also it emphasises that a book like this is not a mystery to be solved, but a reflection and representation of life which is – let’s say – a mystery we all take part in.

What does it contain? It has some familiar themes for readers of Ishiguro’s previous novels, though mainly from the trickier of his books such as The Unconsoled and When We Were Orphans: a dreamlike logic which telescopes locations and fuzzes the facts, and narrative detours on a quest the protagonists don’t really understand themselves. It also holds some firsts for Ishiguro, like a portrait of a marriage, and switches in narrators, though most of the story is told in the third person (another first). This is interesting because until now, Ishiguro has relied to some extent on his narrators’ ignorance of reality for his effects. Here, he brings it into the open by setting his story in a land where people’s memories are failing them.

In terms of setting, The Buried Giant follows Never Let Me Go in using an alternative historic England: this time, around the fifth or sixth century AD, when the Britons are being pushed west by the incoming Saxons, and people share their space with ogres, pixies and dragons. The inclusion of these creatures means the novel will inevitably be referred to as fantasy, and if the simple presence of supernatural creatures makes it fantasy, then so it is. But this would be to overlook the fact that these elements are not a primary purpose of the book, any more than the science fictional nature of Kathy and her colleagues’ existence in Never Let Me Go was the centre of that book. Wikipedia defines fantasy literature as “written works that utilise the motifs, themes and stylistic approaches expected in the fantasy genre.” This is pretty circular, but it’s clear that The Buried Giant does not conform to any expectations, genre-based or otherwise. When devilish creatures are encountered, they’re despatched almost as an aside, or turn out to be weak and elderly and hardly worth battling. This deliberate diminution of effect goes all the way through the book from the title down: the buried giant referred to is a mound on the land that the protagonists worry about crossing, so they decide to circumnavigate it. We expect difficulties, but the next time we encounter them, they have passed it without incident.

‘They’ are Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple of Britons who live in a village where a council makes edicts that are unexplained (such as that Axl and Beatrice are not permitted a candle in their chamber), and people quickly forget those who disappear, even when they return. “The mist” is how Axl and Beatrice refer to the clouding of memory which affects everything and everyone: they cannot even remember if they have a son, though they quickly decide that they have and that they must go to his village, though they are not quite sure where it is. (“Already these recollections were growing confused, in much the way a dream does in the seconds after waking.”) So the story proceeds by ellipsis and omission, and most of the characters’ questions, like the reader’s, will never be answered. Axl and Beatrice’s nonexistent memories of their son are representative of a wider phenomenon: people alight on ideas which then become solid, the mind grasping at any detail, however vague, to build a strong conviction from nothing but air. Simultaneously, in the absence of knowledge, superstition runs amok. There is much discussion between Axl and Beatrice of the benefits of memory: they know they love one another (they are almost comically devoted) but have no evidence how or why. They want to retrieve their memories, but worry that these might dredge up experiences best forgotten. Like the buried giant, memories may best be left undisturbed. Yet what do we have but our memories, and what are our character and relationships based on but what we have known so far?

This paradox of memory is applied more broadly in the book. Our Britons encounter a Saxon warrior, Wistan, and we might expect conflict, but he is respectful and recalls that he was trained by a Briton. Yet distrust is not far away, and it is not difficult to see modern parallels in the theme of two peoples warring for reasons based only on memory and not on personal experience: future generations inheriting grievances like genetic mutations. We also learn, later in the book, of another purpose for the imagery of the buried giant: once a feared creature is killed, Wistan predicts that

the giant, once well buried, now stirs. When soon he rises, as surely he will, the friendly bonds between us will prove as knots young girls make with the stems of small flowers. Men will burn their neighbours’ houses by night. Hang children from trees at dawn. The rivers will stink with corpses bloated from their days of voyaging.

At this point The Buried Giant seemed like another first for Ishiguro: a political book, reminding us of post-war regimes like Iraq.

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant

Along their journey, Axl and Beatrice encounter many other people, some of whom, as in The Unconsoled, seem to represent aspect of their own characters and lives – a woman abandoned without her husband by a boatman expresses Beatrice’s own anxieties about being left by Axl, and Edwin, a boy they take with them after he is forced to flee his village, acts as a surrogate for their putative son – as does, more confusingly still, a soldier they meet while with Edwin. They also meet Sir Gawain, still pottering about in his old age and not quite getting around to fulfilling King Arthur’s demands of him, and getting pretty shirty when reminded of his failure. Many of these encounters are enlightening (or at least cast interesting shadows), but sometimes the diversions on the quest and the new characters are duller than must have been intended. In particular, a long stretch of the novel set in a monastery and immediately after the characters leave, sags dangerously and had me hoping for a magic spell to get to the other side.

It’s possible to see how the entire book might have that effect on some readers. Ishiguro repeatedly frustrates any hopes for a usual narrative trajectory, muffles noise, and hints at things which are never explicitly revealed. It is because of this that, despite the language being simple, despite every action and event being clearly described, we end up with such a thoroughly enigmatic novel – a magical mystery tour. The narrative voice is seamlessly executed, with no authorial trace – Ishiguro never hammers things home for the reader, or even taps them lightly – and this makes it immersive and engaging. The other aspect of The Buried Giant that pushed it higher in my estimation was the relationship between Axl and Beatrice. The uncertainty and imbalance of their love moves through the book from almost nauseatingly uxorious (“Still here, princess”) to horribly upsetting (if I mention pixies at this point, those who have read the book will nod solemnly). Their dialogue is more often crosstalk than coherence, as they constantly disagree over memories, and they exhibit a combination of blithe reassurance and anxious caution that looks very like much familial love. As the book progressed, I started to think more and more of how their lack of memories were a kind of death, and as with Never Let Me Go, death and how we approach it and live with it looms large in this book.

I have written 1,500 words on The Buried Giant without really doing much more than summarising what I see as the main points. It is too big for me to do more than kick its tyres and nod appreciatively. It is frustrating and as far from perfect as we might expect a great novel to be, and part of my appreciation may well be an awestruck belief that what I don’t fully grasp must be better than me. It is a book that will be discussed and that will endure, and it has the rare feel of a publishing event which is also a literary event. It will not supplant The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go in popular affection, but for those readers who love a book that asks more than it answers: there’s a journey you must go on, and no more delay.