Reviewed by Annabel
Unless you live in a hole in the ground (more of that later), it can’t have escaped your attention that Kazuo Ishiguro has a new novel out. It’s been ten years between novels, and there have been pages and pages of interviews and reviews in the newspapers, the BBC devoted a whole programme to him (admittedly on BBC4 – but an hour nevertheless), and ‘Ish’ has appeared all over the place to promote the book. Can it possibly live up to the huge success of his last book, the speculative novel Never Let Me Go?
The setting is Britain in the Dark Ages; the Romans are gone, Arthur too now. The Britons and Saxons live in uneasy peace. From the outset, we are aware this is not a straight-forward historical narrative. Ishiguro introduces mythical creatures on the very first page.
Icy fogs hung over rivers and marshes, serving all too well the ogres that were then still native to this land.
Then we meet Axl and Beatrice, an elderly Briton couple who live in a sort of communal troglodyte warren in the side of a hill. When Beatrice is deemed to be unsafe to have a candle by night, rather than be confined in darkness, they decide to go and visit their son who lives in a village some way away. Beatrice has been worrying ever since she met an old woman outside one day:
“…she went on speaking, about how this land had become cursed with a mist of forgetfulness, a thing we’ve remarked on often enough ourselves. And then she asked me: ‘How will you and your husband prove your love for each other when you can’t remember the past you’ve shared?’ And I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Sometimes I think of it and it makes me so afraid.”
“…We can make all those memories come back, princess. Besides, the feeling in my heart for you will be there just the same, no matter what I remember or forget.”
Axl and Beatrice continue on their way, and as in all quest type narratives, they meet other travellers who will share their path for a while. These include Wistan, a Saxon warrior with his own agenda, and a boy Edwin whom they rescue from an uncertain fate – he is said to have been bitten by ogres. They also encounter Sir Gawain, who is now elderly himself, yet still travels fully armoured in search of the dragon Querig whom he must slay.
When Beatrice complains of pain, they decide to take the long way round to their son’s village, to visit the monastery on the hill where there is a healer monk. However they encounter Briton soldiers on the way who are on the lookout for Wistan, who poses as an imbecile to evade them. The goings on in the monastery reminded me of nothing so much as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose; there’s murder in the air up there.
The old couple escape with Gawain’s help, and stumble on in their quest to they’re not quite sure where, towards the son whose facial characteristics they can’t quite remember clearly. But reunited with Wistan and Edwin, the old couple feel compelled to join them and Gawain in search of Querig and rid the valley of the dragon’s breath that was making amnesiacs of them all. The big question is thus not will they find their son, but what will become of them when they remember?
The acres of newsprint and blog reviews already published about The Buried Giant have dissected this novel and examined the recurring themes in Ishiguro’s work, so I won’t dwell on that here. There is also much debate about the fantasy context. Is The Buried Giant a fantasy novel? Game of Thrones as a current touchstone is frequently brought up – unfairly I think – there is little similarity between them. The thoughtful fantasy of Gene Wolfe (an author I must reacquaint myself with) is a fairer comparison.
I didn’t see this book as a full-blown fantasy novel, just a book that uses some metaphors from that world. One of my favourite YA novels is called Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve, which recasts Merlin as a spin-doctor and conjuror rather than magician, and I think Ishiguro definitely puts some spin on the existence of these fantastical creatures here too. People see things differently – here’s Edwin:
Along the bank, not far from the ruined tree, a large ogre was crouching down on its knees and elbows at the water’s very edge, its head completely submerged.
Edwin’s companion Wistan, however, sees no ogres. In this land of the Dark Ages where fear and superstition rule, it is easy to imagine a gnarled tree trunk to be an ogre, frozen into the pond. That’s not to say that they or the dragon don’t exist necessarily, for me it was the idea of them that was important, not their corporeal being.
Another trope that can be dispelled is that this is an historical novel. It’s not really – it’s a fable. Indeed Mark Lawson interviewing Ishiguro for the BBC put it brilliantly: “In your novels you play with history, they’re about the effects of history. In that sense, you’re a novelist about history.”
In The Buried Giant, the key theme is thus remembering and forgetting. Ishiguro compares the collective forgetting that permits the Britons and the Saxons to co-exist by drawing a line under their previous battles, with the marriage of Axl and Beatrice who, although not senile, have forgotten and maybe forgiven much and moved on preserving their love for each other in the moment. The collective forgetting has many modern parallels, and Ishiguro who comes from Nagasaki, is supremely aware of this. By picking an ancient indistinct time, he avoids pinning this novel down to existing events. The forgetting and remembering within a relationship complements this by being an eternal theme.
The detour to the monastery is probably the least successful part of this thoughtful novel, although it does provide a welcome change of scene from the stony paths and woods through which this book gently meanders. I grew to love Axl and Beatrice, and found it touching how Axl always called her ‘princess’ – it made me wonder how their lives had been before they forgot. It made me hope that the world in which they reawaken would not be too far from the one they imagined.
It may have been hard to put my finger on exactly what is so good about this novel, but I enjoyed it hugely. It has all his hallmarks in terms of language and framework. Fans of Ishiguro won’t be disappointed by this subtle tale which will leave you thinking for a long time after reading.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and applied to Mastermind once upon a time with Arthurian myths and legend as her subject – mercifully perhaps, she didn’t get an audition!
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant (Faber, London, 2015) 978-0571315031, , 352 pp., hardback.