Reading Kazuo Ishiguro

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“Then he took the sword in both hands and raised it—and Gawain’s posture took on an unmistakable grandeur.” – The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

My son gave me a signed first edition of Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, The Buried Giant, for Christmas. The book has been cast in some marketing circles as a fantasy, with allusions to King Arthur and Beowulf and the like, although the author has said he doesn’t set out to write in one particular genre or another and doesn’t like his books to be labeled as such.

Ishiguro is one of my favorite novelists, so I read every new book of his that comes out.

Never Let Me Go (dystopia/science fiction) and When We Were Orphans (in the tradition of the mystery/detective novel but with a literary twist) are my favorite Ishiguro novels. In fact, Never Let Me Go is one of the best novels I’ve ever read, one of Ishiguro’s more accessible stories. If you want to read Ishiguro, you might start with Never Let me Go, which was made into a movie starring Carey Mulligan. Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (pre World War II) was also brought to the screen with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

As much as I enjoyed the screen versions of these books, there is something about Ishiguro’s writing that seems to be lost in a movie, at least for me. His novels are like dreams verging on nightmares from which you can’t awaken. Things don’t quite make sense in Ishiguro’s novels – you know this is not “reality” and that something is off, but what? The main character(s) are usually on a quest of one kind or another. They long for something that seems to be just out of reach.

You come to discern that Ishiguro’s characters are operating under some grand delusion. It’s unsettling, because you sense something familiar about the delusion; you begin to recognize that perhaps you operate under the very same delusion.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo IshiguroEspecially if you’re of a certain age and you have children who have left the nest as I do, you might find The Buried Giant particularly affecting. Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple who leave their village and set off to find their son, whom they apparently haven’t seen in many years. They can’t remember the circumstances under which he left, or exactly where he lives, just as they can’t remember much of anything about their own pasts.

Axl and Beatrice aren’t unusual, though. No one in their village or anywhere else remembers much about their own past, nor do they seem to want to; a fine mist over the countryside, thought to be the breath of the dragon Querig, is said to be responsible for shrouding both personal and collective memory.

It is somewhere around the year 600 AD, and England is in ruin. Axl and Beatrice want to find their son, and they want to regain their memories. As they wander in search of their son, they meet others on their own quests. Clues and sightings suggest a terrible slaughter between the Saxons and Britons that no one remembers, just as no one recalls the dark secrets that lurk in their personal pasts. Perhaps the mist is in place so Britons and Saxons can live side by side without wanting to exact revenge.

As one reviewer pointed out, don’t we all operate under collective memory loss, or denial, that’s partly deliberate? Over climate change, for example, even though climate scientists have been warning us about it since the seventies? Or the atrocities of war?

Axl and Beatrice become caught up in a scheme to slay the dragon so memories can be recovered, but as Sir Gawain, the knight and nephew of the dead King Arthur, asks Beatrice, “Yet are you so certain, good mistress, you wish to be free of this mist? Is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?”

Just as the Saxons and Britons fought a terrible war, you gradually learn there was upheaval in Axl and Beatrice’s relationship as well. What will happen when this couple, who seem to be so in love, recall their betrayals of each other? And what happened to their son?

Axl and Beatrice meet a boatman who they must rely on to help them cross a river in their journey. He says, “When travellers speak of their most cherished memories, it’s impossible for them to disguise the truth. A couple may claim to be bonded by love, but we boatmen may see instead resentment, anger, even hatred. Or a great barrenness. Sometimes a fear of loneliness and nothing more. Abiding love that has endured the years – that we see only rarely.”

Beatrice replies: “But God will know the slow tread of an old couple’s love for each other, and understand how black shadows make part of its whole.”

Ishiguro builds up to a powerful and haunting conclusion. Like all of Ishiguro’s novels, I can’t get this one out of my mind.

There has been some interest in making The Buried Giant into a movie, but there are no definite plans yet.

Here is an excellent 4-minute video of Ishiguro talking about his novels made into movies.

In this interview, Ishiguro talks about how a book can be the raw material for a movie, which becomes something new and powerful in and of itself; how literary genres are breaking down and overlapping in exciting ways; and how he embraces the Leonard Cohen model of artistry and aging in which the artist looks to aging as new material for his/her art.


Kazuo Ishiguro authograph


Have you read The Buried Giant or other novels by Ishiguro? Do you have a favorite? Have you seen the movie versions of Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go?






The Bone Clocks

The Bone Clocks book cover


“It’s grief for the regions we deadlanded, the ice caps we melted, the Gulf Stream we redirected, the rivers we drained, the coasts we flooded, the lakes we choked with crap, the seas we killed, the species we drove to extinction, the pollinators we wiped out, the oil we squandered, the drugs we rendered impotent, the comforting liars we voted into office–all so we didn’t have to change our cozy lifestyles. People talk about the Endarkenment like our ancestors talked about the Black Death, as if it’s an act of God. But we summoned it, with every tank of oil we burned our way through. My generation were diners stuffing ourselves senseless at the Restaurant of the Earth’s Riches knowing–while denying–that we’d be doing a runner and leaving our grandchildren a tab that can never be paid.”   The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell

I debated whether or not to write a post about The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. At least twice, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to finish reading it, but I’d already invested several hours in the book, so I kept on when the going got tough. In the end, I’m glad I finished The Bone Clocks. I think it’s worth writing about here, even though I don’t pretend to grasp its full meaning.

I’d picked up The Bone Clocks in the first place because it’s been called a genre-bending novel by a writer who’s reinventing fiction, so I wanted to find out what David Mitchell and his work is all about. It’s nearly impossible to summarize the plot of The Bone Clocks, which blends literary fiction with fantasy (not a genre I’m attracted to) and dystopian literature. There are six linked novella-type sections that take place in 1984, 1991, 2004, 2015, 2025, and 2043 (with flashbacks to medieval and other times) in settings as diverse as Ireland, New York, Iraq, England, Switzerland, Australia, and Iceland.

Among the half a dozen or so featured characters, apparently a couple of them have appeared in Mitchell’s past novels, including Cloud Atlas, none of which I’ve read. Holly Sykes is the highly appealing central character, and she is largely what kept me going when I wanted to stop, although I found many of the other characters arresting as well.

The fantasy thread features Horologists, a select group of immortal people battling the evil Anchorites, who suck the souls from people to stay alive. “A Horologist’s Labyrinth” is the section of the novel fully devoted to the final battle between the Horologists and the Anchorites–by far the most irritating part of the book, for me. I don’t like fantasy to begin with, and this section seemed to be poorly written, especially considering the brilliance of the rest of the book, although one critic pointed out we’re not to view it as serious fantasy, but rather a tongue-in-cheek portrayal.

I’m not even sure I understand why the fantasy element is present, though I know Mitchell sees it as central to his theme. The bone clocks are mortal and often foolish humans who inevitably age, decline, and die; they are contrasted with the brilliant, wise and immortal Horologists. I refer you to critics and reviewers in the mainstream publications who do a much better job of “figuring out” The Bone Clocks, especially if you’re interested in finding out more about the fantasy elements. Much of this aspect of the novel is simply over my head.

I’m not familiar with British and Irish slang from the 1980s, and so getting started was difficult–the first section depicts Holly as a runaway teenager from a working class English town. Despite all these difficulties, the The Bone Clocks marathon has a tremendous momentum, and for long sections I was riveted. Here, I want to focus on the dystopian final section of the book.

What an incredible life journey Holly Sykes has, but its end is devastating. Mitchell’s version of dystopia, while not especially original or inventive, is nonetheless disturbing. It is the time of the Endarkenment. Humanity is on its last legs. Holly knows one big storm is all it will take to finish off her rural Irish village. She’s living in poverty, with little food, minimal electricity and no internet, in a world ruled by the Chinese and a society that has all but disintegrated.

I read The Bone Clocks during a long, record-breaking deep freeze. Boston, where life seems to have stopped, is in dire straits: snow removal costs have gone over budget by millions, people can’t get to work, schools are closed, businesses are suffering, and the subway system is all but shut down.

We live in a country where many people do not believe in climate change or evolution or vaccines.

My Ohio hometown is a shadow of its former self, mired in poverty and crime. The governor boasts about balancing the state budget, but at the expense of towns starved for funds.

A member of my family is getting expensive medical treatment that, if not for insurance, would mean bankruptcy. And yet, many of our government leaders are determined to take affordable health insurance away from millions of poor and middle class families.

I went to a grocery store yesterday that had only two clerks at the check-out. At the dozen or so self-check-out stations, customers struggled with an automated system that doesn’t work. The store was crowded with people wanting to stock up during the bad weather but, according to the wonderful check-out clerk who helped me, the management would not call for extra help. God forbid this large grocery chain cut into its profits to gainfully employ a few more people or, at least, make sure the stores are adequately staffed.

Could we someday find ourselves in our own Endarkenment? Are we headed in that direction? In The Bone Clocks, when the Endarkenment came, it came fast.

The Bone Clocks isn’t an easy read. If you’re intrigued, if you like challenges, if you want a taste of cutting edge fiction by one of the world’s most highly acclaimed authors, then go for it.

Have you read The Bone Clocks? What do you think of dystopian fiction? Do you see parallels with our current state of affairs, or do you think that’s taking dystopian fiction too seriously?

By the way, you’ll notice a Henrietta Public Library sticker on the cover of The Bone Clocks in the photo above. I want to give a shout out to Henrietta Public Library, which is wonderful, and its dynamic director, Adrienne Furness, who was on the 2015 Caldecott Medal Selection Committee.

She read The Lord of the Rings and said what you’re not supposed to say to get the job

…everyone deserves these chances, moments when something pierces the everyday and points a path toward health and wholeness, toward growth and adventure and change.   – Adrienne Furness

In February, when we began talking about The Hunger Games (the book and the movie), I asked readers to share books that affected them in a profound way when they were growing up.

A couple of people said The Lord of the Rings trilogy had been an unforgettable and transformative reading experience. I considered writing about J. R. Tolkien’s trilogy on Books Can Save a Life, but I knew I couldn’t do his books justice. I’d read Tolkien when I was young, but for whatever reason his fantasy novels didn’t speak to me in the way they have to countless other readers.

Then the other day I visited a favorite blog, What Adrienne Thinks About That, authored by a librarian friend, Adrienne Furness. Adrienne is a superb librarian and a superb writer. Anyone, child or adult, who walks into her library is very lucky indeed. She has just become director of the Henrietta Public Library, and there’s a story behind how that came about.

Adrienne graciously agreed to let me re-post her story:

When I went on my interview, the hiring committee asked me why I became a librarian. For many years now, people who give advice on these matters have been telling librarians not to answer this question, “Because I love to read.”

But I answered this question the same way I’ve answered it in every single job interview I’ve ever gone on. I told the truth.

I became a librarian because I love to read.

The Fellowship of the RingI tell this story often because it was a moment that’s defined my life: I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time when I was in the fifth grade. I got to the end and was overwhelmed by the sadness of the story being over, and so I got my copy of The Fellowship of the Ring and read the whole trilogy again.

I’ve reread the series more times than I can count. My love for these books has nothing to do with elves or magic or swords, although those things are all fine, as far as I’m concerned. What makes me return to this story again and again, though, is the notion of life as a quest. My fifth grade self couldn’t have articulated what she found in those books, but I know now that I needed to see that even the smallest person can step away from comfort and into challenge, that change is possible on scales small and large, that our efforts and intentions matter. The story reinforced for me that there are things in this world worth protecting–fellowship and love, food and conversation, adventure and courage, songs and stories. These are the things that sustain us when life is difficult, when we are hurt or afraid and have to be so much braver than we feel.

These books told me to find people who value the things I do and to treasure them, because they are essential. That’s a lesson that led me from fifth grade straight to this moment when I’m sitting here writing this to you.

I’ll never know how many lives have changed because of a book I made sure was on the shelf or something I helped someone find, but I’ll spend my last couple weeks at WPL watching children check out stacks of books, knowing that some of them will find something that will still matter to them when they’re adults trying to figure out this world that defies understanding.

I became a librarian because everyone deserves these chances,  moments when something pierces the everyday and points a path toward health and wholeness, toward growth and adventure and change.

I believe we all get to write our own stories. When I was in fifth grade, I decided my story was going to be a little epic.

I like the way that’s working out so far.

About Adrienne

Henrietta Public Library’s newly appointed director, Adrienne Furness, was formerly head of the Children’s Department at the Webster Public Library in Webster, NY, where she managed over $100,000 in grants focused on providing better services to homeschoolers in Monroe County, expanding the reach of storytimes and other literature-based programs, and creating a space for tweens in the Children’s Room.

Adrienne is the author of Helping Homeschoolers in the Library, ALA Editions, 2008. She has taught library staff all over the country about working with homeschoolers, and has published articles in Library Journal, School Library Journal, Public Libraries, Children and Libraries, and AudioFile Magazine.

Share your book stories

If you’d like to share a story about a book that is special to you, send an email to valoriegracehallinan[at]gmail[dot]com with the subject line: My Book Story. Please include a post of about 500 words or less in the body of the email or an idea/book you’re interested in writing about.