'The Buried Giant' by Kazuo Ishiguro. I pinched this book from mum when I visited a while ago, she had not really liked it at all. I am not sure what I thought. It is set vaguely in the Dark Ages after the time of the mythical King Arthur, when Britons and Saxons are experiencing an uneasy peace. An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, set off on a journey to visit a long lost son, unsure not only of his whereabout, but if he even exists. They are joined on their journey by a Warrior who saves a village where they are staying from ogres and a young boy who has been a victim of the ogres. Their journey is punctuated by meetings with an elderly Sir Gawain, still on a mission for the long dead Arthur, and a succession of elderly women with strange tales to relate. They are diverted from their course, first to seek medical advice for Beatrice from a monk, and then by the desire to seek out the she-dragon Querig, who's breath is causing a mist of forgetfulness to envelop the land.
The slow meandering nature of the story, and their journey is both enjoyable and boring. Part of the time I felt like I spent the whole book waiting for them to arrive at their destination, to understand the mystery surrounding their son, and the dragon. But the journey is the story and the people within it often seem as vague as the memories they struggle to find. Many of them are also hiding the true nature of their journey and their history, from each other are well as themselves. The whole books feels like one big fat metaphor; darkness and monsters and struggling and forgetting and remembering, and at the end a boat that will take you away to an island of peace. The giant himself gets only a passing mention. Axl and Beatrice agree on one thing, that despite everything, they want their memories back, even though they know that bad ones will return along with the good.
Not sure any quote will really capture the story, but here they are at the Saxon village when Wistan, the warrior, has returned with the rescued boy Edwin:
"Almost beyond the light of the fire a small group of women had huddled around a thin, dark-haired youth seated on a stone. He was already close to a man's height, but one sensed that beneath the blanket now wrapped around him, he still had the gangly frame of a boy. One woman had brought out a bucket and was washing off the grime from his face and neck, but he seemed oblivious. His eyes were fixed on the warrior's back just in front of him, though intermittently he would try angle his head to one side as though trying to peer around the warrior's legs at the thing on the ground.
Al was surprised that the sight of the rescued child, alive and evidently without serious injury, provoked in him neither relief nor joy, but a vague unease. He supposed at first this was to do with the odd manner of the boy himself, but then it occurred to him what was really wrong: there was something amiss in the way this boy, whose safety had until so recently been at the centre of the community's concerns, was now being received. There was a reserve, almost a coldness, that reminded Axl of that incident involving the girl Marta in his own village, and he wondered if this boy, like her, was in the process of being forgotten. But surely this could not be the case here. People were even now pointing at the boy, and the women attending him were staring back defensively." (p.77)
The whole book is written with this sense of unease; nowhere feels safe for them, kind people turn out to be unreliable and even the trust between the couple has undercurrents of negative feelings that are hidden and smoothed over by kind words. What gradually emerges is the story of a great and terrible battle and the doomed attempt to put an end to the cycle of war and killing and vengeance. It has all the hallmarks of traditional oral storytelling; a quest to learn the truth, evil forces, a struggle against nature, heroism and the triumph of enduring love, but is also a warning against complaisance. A strange book that has something of the feel of an Arthurian legend, but much darker, though the darkness comes not from magic or external forces, but from the people themselves. I was left feeling somewhat discombobulated.