The Buried Giant

  • By Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Alfred A. Knopf
  • 320 pp.
  • Reviewed by Paula McLain
  • March 2, 2015

A master storyteller spins a tale for the ages.

In 2008, Booker Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro told the Paris Review that he had “arrived at an odd setting” for a novel he was currently writing. That was three years after the publication of his highly lauded Never Let Me Go, and though the world of letters has had to wait patiently for nearly seven more, the beautifully unsettling result — The Buried Giant — was worth it.

As the novel begins, we learn that Ishiguro is taking us to a surprising world indeed: this is England in the years following King Arthur’s reign. It’s a place that hasn’t moved “much beyond the Iron Age [where]…every so often, an ogre might carry off a child into the mist,” and where an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, is about to embark on the journey of their lives.

Axl’s memory isn’t what it used to be — nor is anyone else’s, we soon learn. A kind of mist has settled over the land, threading deeply into the minds of its inhabitants so that the details and import of events recede from their grasp nearly the moment they happen. Everyone seems to live, in effect, without memory.

But for Axl and his beloved, there is a discomfiting residue where memories used to be, a prickling, disturbing feeling not unlike the mysterious pain that’s begun to plague Beatrice. Thus prodded, the old couple sets off from their small village to try and reach their son. He’s been gone a long time, though they don’t remember why…or what has kept them from trying to search for him before. They can scarcely recall his face, in fact, as if they have “mislaid a precious stone.”

Axl and Beatrice’s path is a treacherous one, for pixies and ogres plague the land, and other, even darker, forces sleep only lightly just beyond their steps.

Along the way, the couple will be joined by Wistan, a Saxon warrior who was brought up by Britons as a child, and a nearly feral orphan named Edwin who may have the makings of a great warrior himself if he can survive the mysterious wound that terrifies his own village into shunning him, and the haunting images of his vanished mother who calls to him, from the recesses of his mind, to rescue her.

Ishiguro’s prose is quietly lyrical, sometimes hypnotic, and his characters speak with the wisdom of those whose lives have been distorted by loss and the yet-plaintive ghosts of war.

One of the most memorable players is Sir Gawain of Arthurian fame. We find him in full body armor, still very much devoted to his king, though Arthur’s reign has long passed. There are wisps of Cervantes’ Don Quixote in Gawain. His knighthood is creaky and long in the tooth — and yet, at its heart, his foolishness has a kernel of insight and judiciousness.

It’s ultimately Gawain who helps us see that the infernal mist of forgetfulness might have its uses after all. As it begins to clear, old wounds — between the longtime lovers, Axl and Beatrice, and the longtime enemies, the Saxons and the Britons — begin to open, and a bitterness to seep in where before there was simple accord.

Holding onto past wrongs and hurts can be destructive, even annihilating, between warring nations, stirring an endless cycle of violence, vengeance, and retaliation, but more poignantly, it can also sever seemingly indestructible bonds between intimates.

In a Modern Love column in 2009, the memoirist Robert Leleux described how his grandmother’s Alzheimer’s essentially had healed a paralyzing rift in his family by erasing her memory of disowning her daughter, Leleux’s mother.

“Imagine,” Leleux wrote, “to be freed from your memory, to have every awful thing that ever happened to you wiped away — and not just your past, but your worries about the future, too. Because with no sense of time or memory, past and future cease to exist, along with all sense of loss and regret. Not to mention grudges and hurt feelings, arguments and embarrassments…to be able not to merely forget, but to expunge your unhappy childhood, or unrequited love, or rocky marriage from your memory. To start over again.”

This is precisely the sort of probing that lies at the core of Ishiguro’s wise and bewitching The Buried Giant. “[W]hat good’s a memory returning from the mist,” Axl asks Beatrice, “if it’s only to push away another?”

If we can’t let go of the darker turnings of human nature — bitterness, resentment, fear, hatred — then perhaps the best we can hope for is to forget them, if only for a little while, or for them to forget us. To treasure the peace of the moment and tread lightly lest we wake the giant in us all.

Paula McLain is author of The Paris Wife and the forthcoming Circling the Sun, to be published by Ballantine in July 2015. She lives in Cleveland with her family.

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