“The Buried Giant” – Ishiguro’s first novel in a decade is more dwarf than colossus.

The_Buried_GiantFantasy, along with its sister, Science Fiction, is an oft-derided genre. Critics and literary award committees turn up their noses; ‘high-brow’ readers won’t be seen dead holding a copy.

A writer that manages to bridge this chasm is the Japanese/British, Booker Prize-winning author, Kazuo Ishiguro. His novels are set against Sci-Fi or fantastical backdrops, but these just form the milieu against which he weaves stories that are profoundly moving and that often ask deeply philosophical questions, in beautiful prose.

Ishiguro’s first novel in a decade, The Buried Giant, is a ‘literary’ version of J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s inspired by Tolkien’s 1953 essay on the medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which King Arthur’s nephew accepts a battle challenge by a mysterious knight. The Buried Giant is set in Britain somewhere between the Dark and Middle Ages. The Romans have left, most of the roads they built, broken or overgrown. Arthur is gone, and the remnants of his Round Table are scattered across the land. Though the late King had managed to stop the civil wars that ravaged Britain, a gloomy tension is rising; “icy fogs” hang over rivers and marshes, and ogres are every day hazards.

Amid this an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, decide to set out from their tiny village to find their son. They can scarcely remember him as a collective memory loss, or “mist”, has fallen across the land. Few can remember even the recent past. But something nags at the edge of Axl’s mind, snippets, small moments of times gone by. Perhaps their son left because of a quarrel, but it’s impossible to say. They know they love each other, but doubts creep in, as fragments of their memories push through the fog.

Perhaps, it’s God himself that’s making them forget, Beatrice suggests to Axl:

“‘It was just a thought. That perhaps God is angry about something we’ve done. Or maybe he’s not angry, but ashamed.’   ‘A curious thought, princess. But if it’s as you say, why doesn’t he punish us? Why make us forget like fools even things that happened the hour before?’ ‘Perhaps God’s so deeply ashamed of us, of something we did, that he’s wishing himself to forget. And… when God won’t remember, it’s no wonder we’re unable to do so.’”

Along Axl and Beatrice’s journey, they meet several characters, including Sir Gawain himself, and come across many hazards, like the dragon, which lies at the centre of the story. As they travel, they slowly discover the truth. About the mist. About the distrust, suspicion, and violence that is stealing almost unnoticed into once-peaceful communities. About themselves.

The plot is unhurried and subtle. A dragon and a famed knight are integral to the tale but the message is about the fear and pain of losing that which we hold dear: memories of loved ones. But amid this poetry, the descriptions of sword fights and magic seem inane and extraneous. It detracts from, rather than furthers the story.

I’m a little divided on this book and I’m not the only one. The New Yorker was scathing, calling it “a slog” while The Guardian loved it, saying it’s “worthy of a place among the greats”. Ishiguro’s writing feels stilted at times, but at least it’s not complicated or wordy. If the novel was any longer I may have found it rather hard work. The Buried Giant is not unmemorable, but didn’t leave me with the same lasting impression as the devastating and achingly beautiful, Never Let Me GoThe Buried Giant a dwarf next to the colossus of some of this author’s previous works.

Rating: 3 out of 5

The Buried Giant is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers SA.

Available for R163 at Takelot.com.

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“Serena” burns bright… and fizzles

Even a remarkable collection of talent, both in front of and behind the camera, can fall far short of delivering an outstanding film. Serena is no exception. It’s not a terrible film per say, but despite strong individual performances and an interesting story, it underwhelms.

The film is based on Ron Rash’s 2008 novel of the same name, about the young, fiercely independent and passionate, Serena (Jennifer Lawrence), who marries timber magnate, George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) in 1930s North Carolina. They are a true power couple: both of them beautiful and ambitious.

George views Serena as more than just a wife – he tells his employees and investors that she is in fact a business partner (much to the chagrin of his best friend and current partner, Buchanan). Serena is indeed the equal of any logger. Having grown up on a Native American ranch, she’s able to wield an axe in impressive fashion, implement an innovative way to stop deadly rattlesnakes, and manage operations at her husband’s growing empire.

But while George has a thriving business, the Great Depression and a threat by environmentalists to turn the last virgin forests in the United States into national parks, means he finds himself over-leveraged. Hands are greased but the pressure mounts. Egged on by his wife, George resorts to violence to keep them and their business out of trouble.

It’s only when a past romantic entanglement threatens Serena’s cutthroat determination to succeed, both as a businesswoman and as a wife, that the couple’s vision for themselves and their future begins to unravel.

Lawrence brilliantly captures Serena’s dual vulnerability and ruthlessness. The Oscar-winner’s performance is magnetic and delivered with flourish, and it’s worth watching the film just for that. The erotic, fiery relationship between Serena and George is tense, with Lawrence and Cooper already having proven their on-screen chemistry in Silver Linings Playbook (they also starred together in American Hustle). Add beautiful Gatsby-esque costumes and an impressive setting, and this movie should have been a winner. Yet, it’s not.

The film is directed by the supremely talented Danish filmmaker, Susanne Bier, who made 2011’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-winner, In A Better World. Bier makes Serena burn bright, but add a longish running time (1h49m) and a plot that is messy at times, and Serena fizzles out into gloomy melodrama.

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Rhys Ifans

Director: Susanne Bier

Rating: 3 out of 5

SA release date: 29 May 2015.

“The Age of Adaline”: a long-in-the-tooth romance

‘Enchanting’ music-box chimes, an extreme long shot of a spinning Earth, and third-person fairy tale narration in the opening scenes of The Age of Adaline, set the tone for this predictable but sweet film and its pre-packaged, “nice” ending.

For the past 80 years, Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively), has been immune to the ravages of time, staying firmly put at the age of 29. It all happened one dark and stormy night when she crashed her car into a lake, and the icy water made her heart stop, only for her to be jolted back to life two minutes later by a bolt of lightning. This incredible event stopped the clock for Adaline, while it continued to run for everyone else.

The first few minutes of the film show how Adaline eventually discovers her ‘condition’, as everyone around her, including her daughter continues to age, while she remains a walking advertisement for anti-wrinkle cream. When people start to notice and the FBI begins to ask questions, Adaline packs her things, and runs. She changes her identity every decade, amid the fear that she might become a science project. Adaline vows never to get close enough to anyone to slip up, and bar one short-lived romance in the 1960s, she sticks to her decision, only occasionally meeting up with her aging daughter, Flemming.

Fast-forward to present day… As Adaline prepares to take up a new identity (funded by an amazing amount of cash she certainly does not earn from her job as a librarian), a New Year’s Eve encounter with a handsome and romantic stranger changes everything. The rich philanthropist, Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman), serendipitously jumps into an elevator with Adaline, who’s now called Jenny. Despite her resistance, Adaline/Jenny falls in love.

The first real complexity in the film appears when Jenny joins Ellis for a weekend at his parents’ home. There, Ellis’ father, William (Harrison Ford), is shocked to recognise the woman he fell in love with in the 60s, and whom he had planned to marry before she disappeared without a word. Jenny temporarily evades the truth by pretending Adaline Bowman was her mother, but over the weekend, both she and William struggle to contain decades of unexpressed heartbreak, while a confused Ellis and Mrs Jones stand by. It is only at this point, half way through the story, that the film begins to stir emotions.

For the most part, the two main characters lack complexity while Ford, as a supporting actor, is the one who manages to convey the “punch-to-the-gut” pain that is lost love. The ache etched on his face when he sees Adaline for the first time in 40 years, is brutal. Lively is much less moving for someone who has had to endure heartbreak for more than the allotted lifetime.

This is Lively’s first appearance on screen following the end of the popular TV-series Gossip Girl in 2012 and the rather dull dagga-thriller, Savages. Since then she’s been married, had a child, and launched the most annoying celebrity blog (sorry, lifestyle website), bar Gwyneth Paltrow discovery of the internet. The Age of Adaline is clearly Lively’s way of saying she’s back and that she has talent; she’s just not picked a film that’s taking her forward far enough.

The movie watches like the hands of an irregular clock: a bit rickety, but it keeps moving and, it’s wrapped up neatly and happily in a story book ending. Save this one for a Friday night in on the couch, rather than waste the price of a movie ticket. Not when you have other offerings, like Serena, on view.

Cast: Blake Lively, Michiel Huisman, Harrison Ford, Ellen Burstyn

Director: Lee Toland Krieger

Rating: 3 out of 5

SA release date: 29 May 2015