One of the things I like about Kazuo Ishiguro’s books is that you can never be sure what to expect when you pick one up. In all of his books that I’ve read (The Remains of the Day, Never Let You Go, and When We Were Orphans), he takes what seems like a pretty conventional type of story (English manor house, futuristic dystopia, detective story) and bends it into something new, putting the focus on something different from the norm or adding some new element. The Buried Giant is no different, and so, although some readers have noted that Ishiguro is going in new directions in this book, to me, it fits in with the rest of his fiction. It may be his first book to deal in myth and fantasy, but outside of that, its an Ishiguro novel. And that means that I’ll be pondering it for some time.
The story, set in a post-Arthurian Britain, focuses on Axl and Beatrice, an elderly Briton couple who leave their village to find their estranged son. The reason their son left is a mystery to them, as a mist that covers the area has been taking people’s memory. The loss of memory is a source of great distress because, even though they can remember their love of their son and each other, they can’t be sure of that love’s foundation. Beatrice worries about what this forgetfulness might mean for their love when the last residue of memory is gone:
I wonder if what we feel in our hearts today isn’t like these raindrops still falling on us from the soaked leaves above, even though the sky itself has stopped raining. I’m wondering if without our memories, there’s nothing for it but for our love to fade and die.
On their journey, Axl and Beatrice meet up with a Saxon knight and an orphan who join them on their journey. They cross paths the Sir Gawain, now old but still questing. Each character’s true agenda is shrouded in mystery, partly because of the forgetfulness but also because some must keep secrets for the safety of themselves and their missions. I can’t actually work out whether I missed something or whether the memory issues are inconsistently treated throughout the book. It definitely seems some characters are more affected by the memory loss than others, but I’m not sure if that’s ever explained.
What does gradually come clear is that memory isn’t always a good thing. The world of the novel is still recovering from years of violence between the Britons and Saxons. Many do remember the conflict, but they aren’t always able to recall the reasons for it. Are the reasons even important anymore? And what will happen if the reasons for the conflict are revealed again? Remembering is fraught with danger—it can mean dredging up old wrongs and raising up old resentments. But forgetting is dangerous, too. For example, the monks in the book have forgotten the history of their home, and they are therefore unaware of its hazards.
In his New York Times review, Neil Gaiman notes that the book has a melancholy tone, and I agree. It’s a slow-paced book; even the action scenes feel muted. The pacing and tone, I must confess, eased me into slumber more than once as I read. As interesting as this book is, it’s not a page turner. It’s a mournful book, mourning past wrongs and present pains and future losses. The ending, when Axl and Beatrice take their next steps, feels both definitive and wide open. The characters’ actual fates, as well as their intentions as they make their choice, could be read multiple ways, each of them drawing out different (but always mournful) feelings.
I’m still mulling over what I thought about this book. It interested me, but never fully captured my imagination. It’s one that I think warrants further thought and examination. I hope it get selected for the Tournament of Books because I think it will spark some good discussion among the commentariat there. If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear what you thought!