In Ishiguro’s 2015 novel, his seventh, a couple of Christian Britains, the loving husband and wife team Axl and Beatrice, decide it’s a good idea to visit their son in a neighboring village. They live in what was called a “warren,” like the dwelling of a rabbit, which was a series of huts built together, connected by one main hall, and built into the hillside, and though they have only vague memories of their son, and even sometimes themselves, they set out.
Along the way, they meet up with Saxon warrior Wistan, the young man who becomes his protege, Edwin, and an aged, yet dignified knight of honor, Sir Gawain, nephew of the recently deceased Arthur. The land of Merry England is teeming with legendary characters: ogres, demonic beasts, pixies, and a she-dragon named Querig, whose breath is covering them all with a far-spanning, amnesiac mist, which causes confusion and complacency throughout the land. After Beatrice gets a cramp, or a pain on her side, they decide, along with Gawain and Wistan, who have both been charged with slaying Querig, and Edwin, an excommunicated village boy who becomes the shadow of Wistan, to stop by a monastery to get her healed.
That’s the main gist of the book, and its focus for the most part is on their journey. It proceeds with great care to the narration, and great doting tendencies towards its characters, the way Ishiguro reveals his plot is emotionally shocking and sorrowful. As the novel steers from its lovable and subdued introduction towards its anticlimax, which leaves the reader in a mild state of dazzled confusion, it treats to realistic and well-done set pieces of medieval England.
The necessity of, or the political maneuver of using amnesia to achieve the means of peace between two warring tribes, the Britons and the Saxons. What does that mean? It means desperate times call for desperate measures, and as the belligerents of heavy conflict find themselves inexplicably banded together on purposes they can barely discern, they begin to form more concrete memories of where, and under what circumstances, they have been acquainted with each other before. And not all of them are positive. In a country so recently scarred by war, the guilt and mark of participation lies on more than one character, and sometimes they are not who the reader may expect.
The finest writing in this book occurs where the relationship of Axl and Beatrice is concerned. We fall in love with their petty dotages, rivaling any old, married couple both in terms of their concern with each other and our concern with them. Axl continues to call her, “princess” throughout the entirety of the book, and the charming domestic terms of their relationship fits in any time period we can think of, as modern today as some old couple whom nobody would write about, but everybody wants to try. In their quest to see their son, they display the same sense of care and occupation a modern couple would, showing the timelessness of love and the timelessness of a marriage based on love. Stuck with each other they are, but always making the best of it, their marriage stands out as the greatest charm of this charming book.
Another bright spot is the lengthy chapter of narration by Sir Gawain, the closest piece of the book to a kind of modernist narration. We see his thoughts and hear his struggles to follow up on his charge from the great Arthur, yet this book both qualifies and does not qualify as a piece of Arthurian fiction. It’s not quite a modernist take on Arthur, its characters seeming to be incidentals in a grander story, and it’s certainly not a realistic period piece where its style is concerned, but it uses tropes from a certain time and place of Britain to develop its themes.
By the end of the novel, the reader is both satisfied and heartbroken by its landing point. Expectations are shattered, and the reader’s eyes are almost sure to be brought to tears. Ishiguro mixes up his setting and character to the point of deep admiration, and in doing so creates a world remote, yet knowable; fantastical, yet supremely possible. This novel should be happily placed on a shelf with the greatest of those portraying Merry England, and its modernist point of view, yet casual reverence for the literature of those times, gives it such a unique place.
By Matthew C. Brock