This book is beautiful and strange, and I think I need to read it again, fairly soon.
The structure feels quite classical, a journey in the manner of the Odyssey. A couple begin their quest, encountering various strange and apparently unrelated people and other creatures through whom they learn more about themselves and their mission.
Potential spoilers below the cut.
The dreamlike realm which most of the narrative occupies, in which very little is directly explained, contributes to the mythical quality. This atmosphere is created, in the text, by a mythical creature who deprives the characters of their memories, so that often all they are aware of are their emotions and their current activity. And yet the eventual appearance of this fabulous beast is ambiguous, even anticlimactic.
The story is very much told from Axl’s point of view, borrowing the voices of other “heroes” from time to time. As such, Beatrice plays the role of companion – Sundance to his Butch, Quixote’s donkey – and her own story is perhaps more interesting because it is hazy and incomplete. Her presence during the time of the narrative is powerfully emotional, but her perspective in relation to past events is almost absent, leaving plenty of room for speculation and interpretation.
This novel is very different from the other Ishiguro which I have read, “Never Let Me Go”, but the same title would fit it. The themes are very similar: of love, death, relationships, fear, destiny and morality. The idea that some people might be set apart by the intensity or the purity of their emotions, and the hope that love might just possibly save them from oblivion.
I want to talk about the ending a bit, as it preoccupied me all the way through my reading. I was a bit scared of it, and had to peep ahead a couple of times to prepare myself. I became quite heavily invested in the sweet loyalty and affection between Axl and Beatrice, and was steeling myself for some devastating betrayal. But the actual ending is gentle and ambiguous. Like their relationship itself, and like Beatrice’s own role in the story, there are at least two possible readings. One makes me uncomfortable and angry; the other leaves room for love and hope and possibility. And this dilemma which is left for me, the reader, echoes the dilemma at the core of Axl’s story, and Gawain’s, and Edwin’s. Friendship and love and honesty and honour are prized highly, but morality is not black and white.
So I choose to interpret the ending like this. It is about the gentle lies which we tell when people are dying. It is a little about the loss of dignity and autonomy which death brings, and a lot about the difficult decisions which people have to make to protect their loved ones from this. It is about facing death with dignity and courage, and it is about having the strength to be the one who carries on, even without knowing what there is to carry on with, even as the world falls apart around us. It is about love and loyalty and lies.