My lovely sister-in-law brought this book last time she visited, as she thought we’d enjoy reading it. So I opened it up with glad anticipation, having been gripped by Never Let Me Go.
The Romans have long since departed, and Britain is steadily declining into ruin. But at least the wars that once ravaged the country have ceased. Axl and Beatrice set off across a troubled land of mist and rain in the hope of finding a son they have not seen for years. They expect to face many hazards – some strange and other-worldly – but they cannot yet foresee how their journey will reveal to them dark and forgotten corners of their love for one another.
The blurb is suitably pared back, in sympathy with Ishiguro’s economical prose style. This elderly, increasingly frail couple feel no longer entirely welcome in their community and recall they have a grown son living reasonably close, so determine to journey to visit him. So long as they continue to remember him… For they are afflicted with an inability to recall most of their lives, along with everyone else in their community.
Axl finds his memory constantly shifts – there are instances when he suddenly has recollections of important events, but cannot recall what he did as a younger man, though he has an uneasy feeling that at some stage he badly betrayed Beatrice. During their journey, they encounter an elderly knight who is doggedly carrying out the orders of King Arthur, despite the fact that the Knights of the Round Table are long gone. Britons and Saxons are existing in an uneasy peace alongside each other. So… a shifting, otherworld evocation of our distant past featuring an elderly couple I cared about moving across a landscape still bristling with all sorts of dangerous creatures – I must have been engrossed, right? Hm. Not so much. It certainly doesn’t have the power of Never Let Me Go.
Ishiguro is drawing on classic fantasy themes, when taking the decision to set this book in an Arthurian backdrop, complete with knights in armour and the threat of dread creatures. And where I think the disconnect occurs is that his very contemporary, spare prose isn’t a comfortable match for the highly charged, gothic nature of his subject matter. I loved the miasma and the reasons for its existence. I still find myself thinking a great deal about Beatrice and Axl, but the pinnacle of this narrative arc has to be the denouement. Making the effects of the mist such a pivotal aspect of the story certainly builds it up to this particular climax. But the execution of this that leaves something to be desired. If you use a particular genre, you have to abide by the conventions – and a climactic scene is necessary. And what Ishiguro produced was almost the complete opposite, and in doing so, I think he short-changed his readers.
So why am I reviewing this book, if I’ve just claimed that it has a rather flat, unsatisfactory ending? Because it is still worth reading. Because the themes of love, loss and memory are hauntingly evoked. I’d like to claim that the issues confronting Beatrice and Axl only apply to dragon-mazed Dark Age folks – but anyone who knows an Alzheimer’s sufferer will be aware these themes are heartbreakingly contemporary.
And Ishiguro still gets an eight out of ten from me, though with a regretful sense that if only he had altered the mood music of the climax, it would have been edging an 11…