I hardly need to say this, but a new Ishiguro novel is a huge deal. It’s been over ten years since his last novel, with only a brilliant collection of short stories in-between to tide us over. The Buried Giant is set some time after the death of the great King Arthur, in the midst of the dark ages, and this strange cultural gap allows him to play with reality and legend in a fluid way. There is a peace of sorts between the two previously warring nations of the Britons and the Saxons, but it seems like things are hanging on by a thread.
Axl and Beatrice are an older couple living in their small village. They aren’t particularly well respected, and aren’t even allowed a candle to light their way in the dark; while their son lives in a village a long journey away. A strange form of sickness lies over the land, causing people to forget their collective pasts, and even recent occurrences. Children who disappear are soon forgotten about, as they slip from the minds of their search parties who return to their well-worn habits with not a care in the world. Wanting to recapture something they know they have lost, Axl and Beatrice leave the village to undertake a journey to make sure their son is safe, to build a new life and help the memories they can just about glimpse to surface. Underneath all the woozy fog, an Arthurian legend starts to emerge, and who our heroes used to be starts to come into focus as they come across an elderly and erratic Sir Gawain; a strong Saxon warrior; and monks with possibly sinister motives.
It is typically understated, and written in a sparse and simple language. King Arthur is not the only fantasy epic that has infused this story, for there are also shades of Beowulf lurking, and even elements from famous Greek epics. There’s an eerie feel to much of it, the half remembered fragments surrounded by mythical beasts residing in a foggy, murky landscape. Guilt lies over the land, and everyone’s motives are hidden under the surface.
Axl and Beatrice are an endearing couple. They refer to each other with soft and repetitive terms of endearment, without a hint of patronisation. They both long to recover their past, even if a possible danger lies therein. They both see and interpret their memories in slightly different ways, and it might only be this fog of forgetfulness that keeps them (and the previously warring nations) at peace. One of the recurring elements is the quiet but sinister boatman who promises to take couples across to a better land – but only if they can pass his test and prove their true love. This test haunts the couple, as deep down they worry that their love might not be as strong as they hope – and this vulnerability becomes the heart of the novel, as they get closer to the truth about their society and lives.
To speak too much about the book would ruin the mood and the way the novel unfolds. It’s a slow and measured story, its word-of-mouth feel and stark setting perfectly conjuring a fresh but familiar world that fits in perfectly with both the aforementioned fantasy classics and his own works. It’s a fable and metaphor for our splintered and divided world at the same time as being a touching look at age, memory, guilt and love. I can only hope we don’t have to wait as long for his next novel.