Monthly Archives: February 2016

Book seven: The Buried Giant #Ishiguro

Set in an undefined part of England where Britons and Saxons are living in peace with each other an old Briton couple Axl and Beatrice set out upon a journey to visit their son. The history of the couple and their lives before this day are unclear, lost within a mist that sweeps across the land. On the way to visit their son, they meet a number of mysterious people, including Wistan a Saxon warrior, Gawain a night of King Arthur and a Saxon child, Edwin, who has been forced to flee his village after they believe him to be bitten by an ogre.

During the course of their travels Axl and Beatrice find out what is behind the memory clouding mist and must face the reality of remembering things they may have preferred to have left forgotten.

I thought this was a beautiful book. Like man of his other books Kazuo Ishiguro has an almost poetic tone to his writing, slowly moving us through the story. As referred to in my previous post there is definitely a haunting theme to this book. Each of the characters is haunted by their past, memories are eclipsed breaking through in small moments of light. When reading you cannot help but reflect on your events in your own life that haunt you. Do we remember them as they were? Or do we cast a favourable light even on our worst memories?

There are also a lot of secrets in the book. We are often held in the perspective of Axl and Beatrice unsure as to what is happening and whether we are being told the truth. From the mysterious animal that bit Edwin to the behaviour of the monks we are often left lost and guessing, caught up in the cloud of mist. As the truth unfolds it commits us more to the story, to the journey that Axl and Beatrice are on and to the task that lies before all our characters. Even the ending of the book is shrouded in haunting images and secrecy as Axl and Beatrice meet once again with the boatman.

Reading other reviews of the book on Goodreads I was shocked by how many people felt to connection to the characters, did not care for them and were not engaged by the book. I cherished the main couple on the story admiring their love for each other and hoping that in our later years my husband will still call me princess and look out for me on our adventures. I also find the more mysterious and deep characters of Wistan and Gawain compelling. Both warriors clearly carry a heavy weight upon their shoulders and their loyalty to the leaders is admirable. When their individual tasks bring them face to face it is difficult to accept although by that stage in the story you know the outcome is inevitable.

Those that have become caught up in the idea of this as a fantasy novel are I believe completely missing the point of Ishiguro’s writing. A scene has been painted in 6th century Britain and colour is given with reference to ogres and dragons but this is ultimately a book about relationships and memories. Through Axl and Beatrice we must face some stark questions about humanity. Who are we without memories? Can we create a future without knowing the past? Is love strong enough to forgive the past?

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Among Giants and Ghosts: Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mitchell in conversation

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing two literary greats talk about their interests, inspirations and writing. So often when authors participate in events like this there is an intellectual chair who has read all of their work in great detail and proceeds to ask what they think are probing questions about themes, issues, and characterisation. But as Mitchell said himself last night, those questions have all been asked before. A applaud Ted Hodgkinson, Southbank Centre’s programmer for their Literature and Spoken Word programme, for having the confidence to simply leave the authors to it.

The evening began with a short montage of clips from the numerous books of both authors that have been made into film. I must admit I was taken aback by just how many of them have made the jump to screen.

In the early stages of their careers both authors experimented with writing ghost stories. It was interesting to hear them talk about this and the different viewpoints they take. Mitchell is clearly interested in the gore of ghost stories, the tales of what these ghouls may do to you and shared a story with the audience about his brother telling him a ghost story when he was four years old which was built around the fear of a dead grandfather coming back to take your liver! Ishiguro’s fear is more closely aligned to my own which is of the supernatural being itself rather than what they may do to you. The gory elements are things we could fear from a human, the madman who breaks into a home in the middle of night is very real and scary but the incomprehensible phantom that we see when waking from sleep in the middle of night is haunting.

I was really intrigued to hear Ishiguro speak of that feeling of being haunted. Whilst he has left ghost stories behind him, I think he still writes haunting tales, echoes of his characters and stories stay with the reader long after you have put the book down. His characters are also haunted within the books. Take his most recent The Buried Giant, Axl and Beatrice are clearly haunted by the memories of old taken from them in the mist. And in one of his more famous novels The Remains of the Day Mr Stevens is consumed with the people and events of his past.

I think for most people the word haunting immediately conjures images of ghosts, eerie dark houses and things that go bump in the night. Yet as an adjective it is simply defined as remaining in the consciousness; not quickly forgotten. A haunting tale does not have to be scary or gory it simply needs to endure, a quality Kazuo Ishiguro captures beautifully in his books.

From haunting the conversation moved on to fight scenes with a cut away to a clip from a Japanese samurai film which Ishiguro used to demonstrate how a real sword fight should take place. The two proceeded to talk about the difference between writing a great fight scene and filming one. It was something I’d never thought about, but then other than the Lord of the Rings Trilogy I don’t think I’ve read many books with large scale battle scenes. Both writers were in agreement that in books it is more important to get the build up to the battle right, conveying the tension, the anxiety, the aggression then leads the reader to feel that within the battle scene whereas in a film all of that can be conveyed through the battle itself. Mitchell talked about a book by Rosemary Sutcliff that he had read as a child in which the battle scene had been superbly described. In his memory that part of the story was 20 pages long with so much detail and information. Re-reading the book as an adult he realised it was in fact a page and a half, but within there so much had been captured.

Another important factor when writing fight scenes highlighted by Ishiguro was perspective and height. Having re-read War and Peace recently it had struck him how important it is to have someone high up observing the fall out, through that character you can provide a micro and macro account of the fight. Naivety on my part but I had never given much thought to how you describe and create a fast paced battle with words that will only be consumed as quickly as your reader can process them. I have a new found respect for authors that include huge battles, well those who do it well.

The evening moved quickly with both authors taking turns to move away from the planned topic, heading off on a tangent with a tale or a question for the other. Did Mitchell play imaginary games when he was little? Why is Ishiguro so obsessed with the county of Worcestershire? One of the most interesting bits of the conversation I felt was when they spoke about areas they do not feel knowledgeable or authentic enough to write about. With success and age both authors admit to becoming more reserved with their writing and less likely to take risks. Mitchell confessed that he would not write an American narrator again feeling he would be a minor tone out but that being enough to make the whole thing sound wrong. Ishiguro spoke of shying away from areas that he feels are still to present, for example avoiding an original idea to set The Buried Giant during the Bosnian war for fear of not knowing enough to be true to it. Mitchell’s solution is to take side steps, don’t use an American narrator use an Englishman who has lived in America for many years, or maybe a Canadian (said with a wink and a smile).

Time for questions from the audience. I won’t go through them all but wanted to pick up on one of them. A lady asked about how the endings are created, her assumption from reading being that Mitchell very much knows his ending at the start whereas Ishiguro finds his way there organically. Having only read Cloud Atlas by Mitchell I could understand where the assumption comes from, to create a book like that one presumes that the ending must be known to create the loop. How wrong both I and the questioner were. Much to the amusement of the audience both authors were quick to respond – Mitchell “I never know my ending” and Ishiguro “that is where I start”. It was also interesting to see how each other’s method amused and possibly baffled the other. What they both agreed on is that sometimes you have an action, an image, a moment that comes to you that you know must be woven into the book. Mitchell described it as being a point C, knowing what F is going to be and using D and E as the vehicles to get you there.

Although possibly a little awkward to start once Mitchell and Ishiguro found their stride I think both could have continued well into the night. It was a relaxed and fascinating evening and a format I hope more authors participate in. Following the event the authors were doing a signing but sadly we had a train to catch the queue was already a hundred plus long by the time we got down to the ballroom. Maybe next time.


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Book six: The Kite Runner #Hosseini

I must start this review with an apology to all my friends who have been on at me for years to read this book. Why has it taken me so long? I’ve no idea, but I’m so glad that I did eventually pick it up.

The Kite Runner is the story of Amir, a Sunni Muslim growing up in Afghanistan in the 1970s. Following the death of his mother during childbirth Amir is raised by his father Baba with the help and companionship of their Shi’a Muslim servant Ali and his son Hassan. Amir struggles with the complex nature of his relationship with Hassan who is both servant and friend, and the socioeconomic culture he faces as one of the privileged class. In a bid to prove himself to his father Amir becomes fixated on winning the Kite tournament, and his faithful companion makes it his mission to chase down the final kite for him. But in the aftermath of the tournament when Amir is unable to find the courage to defend Hassan against a group of bullies it sets off a chain reaction that leads to guilt, lies and betrayals. Flash forward and at the age of 18 Amir and his father are forced to flee Afghanistan due to the changing political climate. They make a new life for themselves in America but the memory of Ali and Hassan remains. Years later Amir is forced to return to his homeland to rescue the son of his childhood friend Sohrab and in doing so must face the demons and decisions of his youth.

From the opening paragraphs I was transfixed with this story. Hosseini has a beautiful way with words and a rhythm to his writing that whisks you away from your everyday life to the countries, cities and homes of his book. For as long as I have known of Afghanistan it is has been a country I associate with war. A place where strict rules are imposed by the Taliban and in more recent years a broken country trying to rebuild. It was therefore eye opening and moving to read of the Afghanistan Hosseini knew. He paints his pictures through the things we can sense, taste and smell. His attention to detail in describing the landscape, the impact of the changing seasons, the colours of the kite tournaments, and the food all create a colourful and vivid picture for us. The sharing of food is clearly an important Afghan custom as it features so much in the book. You can almost taste the naans, stews, pomegranates and lamb kabobs that punctuate Amir’s story. Although fiction I feel in reading The Kite Runner I have a better understanding of the country.

The character of Amir is completely and utterly open to us as he narrates his story. Throughout we are privy to his thoughts and feelings, both as a child and as the adult reflecting on his story as he writes. The event which causes the breakdown of his relationship with Hassan is harrowing and heart breaking, but it does not come as a surprise. We know from the tone at the beginning of the book that this is the moment Amir will not act, this is the turning point in his life, the sin he feels he must confess and atone for.

For the first two thirds of the books there is a noticeable absence of female figures. Both Amir and Hassan are raised by their fathers with the only other constant in their life Rahim Khan best friend and business partner to Amir’s father Baba. Despite this I felt a presence of women in the book. Amir has a strong likeness to his mother; he is creative and emotional and struggles with the expectation of his father to be more like him. Hassan is also surrounded by the echo of the mother who left him and his father.   He is disparaged for being Hazara, ridiculed for his cleft lip and taunted for the immoral actions of a mother he never knew and yet still misses.   The strongest female in the book is by far Amir’s wife Soraya. She is steady, intelligent and compassionate, and although Amir does not immediately confide in her it is her presence in his life that gives him the strength needed to return to his homeland and right a wrong.

The Kite Runner is an epic tale, spanning continents and decades, of friendship, loyalty and love. A book to be cherished along with the little lost boys at the heart of it, Amir, Hassan and Sohrab.

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