Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant begins — as does his beloved 1989 Man Booker-winning novel The Remains of the Day — with its protagonists embarking upon “an expedition … through the finest countryside in England.” Both novels explore Ishiguro’s recurring theme, the nature of memory. Both, beneath their placid veneer, have a quiet but certain power to disturb. But from that point on, The Buried Giant, Ishiguro’s first novel since 2005’s Never Let Me Go, differs in almost every other aspect (have I mentioned the dragon?).
We are still in England’s green and pleasant land, but we are barely out of the Dark Ages, a fictive version at that, and life itself is not entirely pleasant. “An ogre might carry off a child into the mist. The people of the day had to be philosophical about such outrages.” Worse than dragons, ogres and whatnot is that which has been wrought by man. Life in the post-Arthurian age is mean and hardscrabble. Disputes are settled with swords. People cluster together not out of affection but out of fear. The greatest problem, though, is “the way the world’s forgetting people and things from only yesterday and the day before that. Like a sickness come over us all.” So observes Beatrice.
Beatrice and her husband Axl are “two elderly Britons,” devoted to each other. They set off by foot from their settlement to visit their son, whom they but dimly remember. In their travels, they come upon a series of increasingly troubling tableaux; an altercation between a ferryman and an elderly women, a village and a monastery, both under attack.
Proceeding at the same measured pace as Axl and Beatrice, the novel has the dreamlike quality of myth. Ishiguro provides some — but not many — clues as to time and place, but as with Never Let Me Go, he both tells and not tells. We sense the narrator may be all-knowing but is deliberately withholding information. In a sense, Ishiguro leads us deeper into the dark woods along with Axl and Beatrice, disorienting us and creating readerly tension.
As the two journey on, they are joined by Wistan, a brave Saxon warrior; Edwin, an abandoned young boy, and an aged Sir Gawain, late of King Arthur’s Court (plus his trusty horse, Horace). Each is on a quest, each with motives hidden — or forgotten. Everywhere they go, they see signs of what they call “the mist,” of memory obscured, including their own.
Though only vaguely aware of where their son lives or why he left them, Beatrice insists, “He’s our son. I can feel things about him, even if I don’t remember clearly.” In the same way, she and Axl feel their love for each other — Axl constantly calls her “Princess” — yet both are plagued by partial or distorted memories, doubt. More than being reunited with their son, the couple longs to be reunited with their memories that have been been hidden in the mist. As a woman asks Beatrice, “How will you and your husband prove your love for each other when you can’t remember the past you’ve shared?”
Hilary Mantel didn’t even attempt to replicate Tudor era English with her Thomas Cromwell series Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. Ishiguro, though, tries for … something. An elegant stylist, here he chooses to write in a flat, even stilted prose, evoking not so much the parlance of the Middle Ages as performers in a badly-acted play. The action itself, including sword combat, is formal, detached — and intentional.
Wistan can appear to brush past his enemy even while rendering a mortal blow with his sword. Ishiguro accomplishes the same thing by doing the opposite. The Buried Giant appears to lack the delicacy of his other works, but his heavy-handed approach is a means of distraction as he deftly inserts missing piece upon missing piece until he tips his characters — and us — into heartbreak. His peculiar genius as an author is to do this again and again in his eight very different novels, and we fall for it every time.
The novel’s mythical beasties are but window dressing and a little bit of plot device. It is no spoiler to say the buried giant of the title is more powerful than any fantastical creature. It is something altogether human. It is memory, personal and collective, blessing and curse.
Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami.