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[786] The Buried Giant – Kazuo Ishiguro

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“For in this community the past was rarely discussed. I do not mean that it was taboo. I mean that it had somehow faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes. It simply did not occur to these villagers to think about the past—even the recent one.” (Part I, 1, p.7-8)

Kazuo Ishiguro returns once again to his favorite themes of memory and loss, except this time it involves a dragon, which is not merely present, but lies at the very heart of the plot. Set in the time when native Britons and invading Saxons had been fighting over the abandoned Roman province of Brittannia, tendrils of mist curl around villages in which Britons and Saxons live in peace, forgetful of the terrible acts of slaughter that had enabled Arthur to establish his realm and keep the invaders at bay. Sure, the Saxons will indeed recover the memory of the wrongs done to them, and that the Britons will be swept amid carnage and fire from the future England. The she-dragon, Querig, curiously is responsible for this mist of amnesia.

At the heart of the book is a deeply affecting portrait of marital love, and of how even the most precious memories can end up vulnerable. Axl and Beatrice are an aged couple who, in the grip of the mysterious amnesia that had afflicted Britain, decided on the whim to visit a son that they had not seen for years, if not forgotten so much as existed. The embark on a journey that constantly tests their affection for each other. They meet a boatman whose duty is to ferry people to an island of the dead. Only if a couple can convince him of their devotion will he allow them to travel together. From that moment on, they dread their acts will fail them. Then they meet a warrior who is to kill the dragon, a man who is bit by the dragon and so the blood in him will seek congress with the beast, and an advocate for the dragon.

The story at times teeters into pastiche and takes rather weird turn of events. While maintaining Ishiguro’s usual provoking and elegant prose, the story might have stretched credibility. Read it as a fairy tale and let the jigsaw pieces piece together at their timing. All that said, it is a profound meditation on trauma, memory, and the collective lies nations and groups create to expiate their guilt.

362 pp. Faber & Faber UK. Pocket Paper [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[165] The Little Giant of Aberdeen County – Tiffany Baker

Advanced Reader’s Copy
Publication: January 8, 2009
Hachette Book Group USA

“She may have had a whole lovely garden spread out at her feet, but in her heart, she still thought of herself as a weed—unlovely, uncultivated, unwelcome even in her own backyard. Everything in the world has its two faces, however.” [269]

There is no character more stigmatized than Truly Plaise. She’s all bumps and bulges, even when her mother conceives her in the womb. Lily Plaise’s knees buckle under the monstrous belly and mutinous breasts. Born bigger than life, against the heavy odd that it will be a boy, pressing fatally the frontiers of her mother’s body like a balloon, her father blames her for her mother’s death in childbirth. Truly’s heavy and round physiognomy consigns her to among the cooties: the abnormal, the unfit, and the ugly. She’s the miserable anithesis to her sister two years of her senior, who is an “epitome of feminist perfection.”

When Mr. Plaise dies, the reverend’s wife, who believes Truly is the making of Satan, adopts her sister and leaves her to the mercy of the Dyersons in the farm. While Truly’s epic proportions make her subject of constant curiosity and humiliation, Serena Jane’s beauty proves to be her biggest blessing and the worst curse, for it targets her as the obsession of Bob Bob Morgan, the youngest in the Morgan lineage, Aberdeen’s family doctors for generations. In spite of Bob Bob’s years of scrutiny of Serena Jane, they are no more than physical lumps that co-exist in the same house, for they know little to nothing about each other.

Part II sees the change of wind in the novel as Truly moves into the Bob Bob’s house to take care her nephew after her sister leaves for good. It’s not until long she perceives her brother-in-law’s ulterior motive for wanting her in the house: his hungry, morbid fascination with her physical anomalies. She’s no more than a subject to him. Sealed into the new domestic arrangement are betrayals and lies that are not only too big to whittle down but also are stories where once you know the truth, you regret knowing.

“If a secret has an answer, it’ll out on its own if it’s meant to, and if it doesn’t, then maybe providence has a better reason for keeping it hidden.” [312]

Truly’s coincidental (and timely) discovery of a family secret, some apothecary recipes penned by the witch-wife of the first Morgan, might be the key to survive Bob Bob’s cruelties. But this revelation also confronts the ethical and moral decisions between life and death, for she is in possession of a power that, in evil hands, could subvert nature’s pace.

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County muses on the invincibility of death to which all human beings have to succumb regardless of their status. Written in a voice that demarcates the boundary between fairy tale and reality, it redefines mercy, and ponders at the truth that love cannot be ordered to outward appearance and first impression. Isolation is also a key theme. Habitual bitterness reaps emptiness into everyone’s life in the book. Bob Bob sulks, Serena Jane flees for freedom, Priscilla Sparrow (school-teacher) dies alone, Bobbie (doctor’s gay son) hates his father, Marcus (the veteran) loses the familiar language of his senses. Truly lets her diagnosis isolate her from her best friends. These characters are like lonely archipelagos, rendered completely helpless in their secrets. As befit to the metaphors that are redolent throughout the book, they are all choked by their weeds in life.