Like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and The Hundred-Year-Old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared, Kazuo Ishiguro’s first new novel since Never Let Me Go a decade ago appears to be another of those elderly odysseys we’ve seen with such zeitgeist-like regularity recently—albeit one with the trappings, and the characters, of a classical fantasy.
There be dragons in this book, to be sure—alongside sprites, ogres, wizards and warriors—and you can practically taste the magic in the air of its Arthurian England. But never mind that, or the fact that its narrative is arranged around an epic quest, because The Buried Giant is at its best when it’s about Axl and Beatrice, a loving couple who leave their humble home ostensibly to travel to a village a few days walk away. There, the pair hope to renew their relationship with their estranged son.
A simple enough thing, you might think, but the kicker—the tragedy, in truth—is that they don’t really remember him. They don’t really remember much of anything.
Perhaps that’s par for the course, as Axl—rifling through the impressions of memories that have of late escaped him whilst he waits for his ailing wife to awaken—reflects in the first chapter:
He was after all an ageing man and prone to occasional confusion. And yet, this instance of the red-haired woman had been merely one of a steady run of such puzzling episodes. Frustratingly, he could not at this moment think of so many examples, but they had been numerous, of that there was no doubt.
As it happens, Axl and Beatrice are far from the only souls, young or old, laid low by this seeping sickness. This sort of thing has been happening all across the kingdom. A plague of forgetfulness seems to have spread by way of the strange mist that’s moved in, affecting almost everyone.
Everyone except Winstan, that is. An able-bodied Saxon warrior come across the country on a mission to put an end to Querig—a she-dragon some say is the source of the aforementioned mist—Winstan bumps into Axl and Beatrice near the beginning of The Buried Giant, and though they go their separate ways on several occasions, their paths keep on crossing… almost as if they’re fated to travel together.
Just as well, because the road ahead is hard, and there are men and monsters and more besides between them and their respective objectives:
I might point out here that navigation in open country was something much more difficult in those days, and not just because of the lack of reliable compasses and maps. We did not yet have the hedgerows that so pleasantly divide the countryside today into field, lane and meadows. A traveller of that time would, often as not, find himself in featureless landscape, the view almost identical whichever way he turned. A row of standing stone on the far horizon, a turn of a stream, the particular rise and fall of a valley: such clues were the only means of charting a course. And the consequences of a wrong turn could often prove fatal. Never mind the possibilities of perishing in bad weather: straying off course meant exposing oneself more than ever to the risk of assailants—human, animal or supernatural—lurking away from the established roads.
The more protection, then, the merrier, so when another member joins their impromptu party—a renowned knight, not to mention the nephew of King Arthur—our lovers, at least, welcome him with open arms. But the presence of Sir Gawain arouses Winstan’s suspicions, and “stirs long-faded thoughts” in Axl. Distant memories “of some task, and one of gravity, with which I was once entrusted. Was it a law, a great law to bring all men closer to God?”
Clearly, there’s more going on here than meets the eye, as there is in any number of the Man Booker Prize-winning author’s other novels, not least his last: a sinister sliver of science fiction about clones bred to have their body parts harvested which wore the well-to-do clothing of a literary love story. The Buried Giant is no Never Let Me Go, but as an affair of the heart fashioned after the finery of classical fantasy, it is its mirror image.
Unfortunately, the legendary elements of Ishiguro’s new book—seamlessly insinuated as they are into the canon of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table—are essentially inconsequential, unlike Never Let Me Go’s bittersweet secondary thread. The dragon, for example, is little more than means to an end; the ogres are giant-sized plot devices whose rampages take place primarily off the page; and pivotal as it is, the matter of the magical mist, especially the identities it obscures, proves singularly unsatisfying. It’s apparent from the get-go that Ishiguro is playing a game of names, however he doles out the needful details meanly, and far from cleanly. Most he saves to spend at the very end, when the whole situation is roundly resolved as soon as it’s understood.
In the meantime, Axl and Beatrice’s adventure is abstractly handled. One the one hand, it’s perfectly eventful; on the other, the events themselves are related at a frustrating remove. Readers are distanced from them, just as our have-a-go heroes are distanced from their own experiences. I dare say Ishiguro does this deliberately, and certainly there’s some resonance between our relationship with the fiction and the inner conflicts of its characters, but this decision ultimately undercuts what little tension and jeopardy The Buried Giant generates.
That said, the love story that the novel really revolves around is remarkable. Never mind whether or not they get their memories back, Axl and Beatrice are, in the midst of the mist, a truly touching couple. Far from perfect, in that they are often at odds with one another, but their abiding bond is a beautiful thing. Thankfully, this—as opposed to the vapid fantasy at the front of the fiction—is the focus of The Buried Giant’s affecting finale. It’s a tear-jerker, as apt as it is satisfying, and you’ll finish it feeling as follows:
He had been in the throes of some powerful and strange emotion, one that had all but put him in a dream, though every word being spoken around him still reached his ears with perfect clarity. He had felt as one standing in a boat on a wintry river, looking out into dense fog, knowing it would at any moment part to reveal vivid glimpses of the land ahead. And he had been caught in a kind of terror, yet at the same time had felt a curiosity—or something stronger and darker—and he had told himself firmly, ’Whatever it may be, let me see it, let me see it.’
A minor work by a modern master it may be, but at its best, when Ishiguro dispenses with the classical fantasy trappings that serve to obfuscate what’s good and true about this book, The Buried Giant is brilliant.
The Buried Giant is available now from Knopf Doubleday.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.