Books

Kazuo Ishiguro
The Buried Giant

In England circa AD600 elderly couple Axl and Beatrice abandon their life in a bleak, primitive village and set out on a journey to see their long-absent and half-remembered son. 

This is an England steeped in magic, and obscured by a mist that enchants the land and causes amnesia in those it envelops. A place where the ogres that stalk the fog are everyday hazards, such as the unrelenting cold, such as hunger. But this is an Ishiguro novel, so nothing is as it seems. If this is high fantasy, it still exhibits his typical austerity.

Kazuo Ishiguro spins paradigms into prisons, he weaves beautiful swaddling melancholy that coddles and breaks his characters. His protagonists are suffocated by duty and dignity, always promising to transcend the social pressures that doom them, always choosing not to for the sake of a society that doesn’t deserve it. 

The Buried Giant, his first novel in a decade, and his first set in the distant past, revisits some familiar motifs: loyalty, honour, regret. It pries apart British mythology of a chivalric age and explores the idea that all civilisations, even the most mannered and polite, are built on a history of half-forgotten conquest and slaughter: “Dig its soil, and not far beneath the daisies and the buttercups come the dead.”

Ishiguro’s frequent theme – the power of memory and of forgetting – is central. As the heroes pass through a country newly pacified by King Arthur’s conquest, the scars of war are still visible; the amnesia brought by the mist is a panacea. Soldiers stand guarding a road, but can’t remember why or from whom. Flickers of what might be memories of a brutal past nag at Axl and Beatrice as they go on their adventure.

Although the setting is fantastic, the focus is on the mundane, and the slow reveal of subtle detail that chips away at the mystery adds up to an immensely satisfying final act. It’s a skill that makes Ishiguro a great writer and this a great book, despite at times being a little too patient, as methodical and plodding as the elderly couple on whose love, and the redemption it offers, the story hangs. 

So while it’s a slow book, even by Ishiguro’s standards, it is also immensely satisfying and lovely, and the closing coda is one of the best things I’ve read in, well, living memory.  ZC

Faber, 352pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 7, 2015 as "Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: ZC