This is a highly unusual, and frequently disorientating, novel. The author, Kazuo Ishiguro, seems to write incredibly varied novels; in genre, in period, in approach and in characters, his novels differ hugely, perhaps sharing only his meticulous dialogue, sympathetically constructed characters and situations which haunt readers long after the novel is finished. They also, perhaps, share an attention to sadness, to loss, and to cultural memory, and it is these in particular that characterise his latest novel. The Buried Giant is a historical novel, of a kind, set in a post-Arthurian world in which Saxons and Britons have mostly forgotten their fights, and where dragons and other magical creatures still exist. It is, as this great review from the Guardian points out, a novel which owes much to Tolkien. It’s also self-consciously historical, though, sometimes addressing the modern reader, aware of its own status as fictional historical narrative.
The story itself is deceptively simple. An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, devoted to one another, set out on a journey to find their son. The journey is the story, because they are battling the mists that have descended and cause forgetfulness. They cannot remember much of their past lives, and both long to remember and also fear it. Snatches of memory return to them from time to time, some happy and some not, but they pursue not only their son but, ultimately, the source of the memory loss, the breath of the female dragon Querig. There are clear parallels with the dragon in Beowulf, but this creature is more problematic, it turns out: does the mist of forgetfulness serve a purpose? Because, of course, this is an Ishiguro novel, and the story isn’t simple at all: what are the couple, and everyone else in Britain, trying to forget? What will happen if they remember? Perhaps some things are better forgotten. The dilemma at the heart of the novel, I think, is the clash between the individual and society, and their different needs. The couple meet many people along the way, who have different, fractured recollections of the past fighting, and are coming to terms with it in their own ways. Forgetting makes the creation of individual identity – and indeed the consolidation of long-term relationships – difficult, but remembering would break the fragile peace of the country.
The novel is playing with genre, then, pulling together and breaking apart fragments of different approaches and styles, yet weaving them together so skilfully the reader hardly notices. In some ways it reminds me of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, which also uses a story of apparently ordinary people to express the effect of war. In The Buried Giant, the reader feels somewhat adrift from the start; if you begin this novel then don’t be put off by the sensation that you’re somehow missing something because, as I soon came to realise, you are, and that’s the point. Axl and Beatrice are adrift too, on the island of their own forgetting, and we are forced to share the isolation and confusion that this causes with them. This makes it a powerful read, subtle, but which will stay with you. It also reminds us that every society has its buried giant and its dragon to help us forget; this novel can be read as a powerful metaphor too.