Published by Knopf on March 3, 2015
Genres: Fantasy, Literary Fiction
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The Romans have long since departed and Britain is steadily declining into ruin. But, at least, the wars that once ravaged the country have ceased. Axl and Beatrice, a couple of elderly Britons, decide that now is the time, finally, for them to set off across this troubled land of mist and rain to find the son they have not seen for years, the son they can scarcely remember. They know they will face many hazards—some strange and otherworldly—but they cannot foresee how their journey will reveal to them the dark and forgotten corners of their love for each other. Nor can they foresee that they will be joined on their journey by a Saxon warrior, his orphan charge, and a knight—each of them, like Axl and Beatrice, lost in some way to his own past, but drawn inexorably toward the comfort, and the burden, of the fullness of a life’s memories.
Sometimes savage, sometimes mysterious, always intensely moving, Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in a decade tells a luminous story about the act of forgetting and the power of memory, a resonant tale of love, vengeance, and war.
“Some of you will have fine monuments by which the living may remember the evil done to you. Some of you will have only crude wooden crosses or painted rocks, while yet others of you must remain hidden in the shadows of history. You are in any case part of an ancient procession, and so it is always possible the giant’s cairn was erected to mark the site of some such tragedy long ago when young innocents were slaughtered in war.”
Knights. Ogres. Dragons. Sword fights. Things that don’t normally interest me, but Kazuo Ishiguro earned my trust with The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go. I started reading this book with with low expectations, but it really resonated with me.
The novel takes place in post-Arthurian Britain, where a tenuous peace hangs in the balance and an unexplained “mist of forgetfulness” has plagued the land for many years. The elderly couple Axl and Beatrice go on an epic quest to find their son, a son they only vaguely remember. During the journey they encounter some challenging situations and an interesting cast of characters, including Saxon warrior Master Wistan, a young boy Edwin and the elderly knight Sir Gawain. These characters all have their own individual quests, with some surprising twists. As with many quests, what they seek is not necessarily what they find.
Master Axl, what was done in these Saxon towns today my uncle would have commanded only with a heavy heart, knowing of no other way for peace to prevail. Think, sir. Those small Saxon boys you lament would soon have become warriors burning to avenge their fathers fallen today. The small girls soon bearing more in their wombs, and this circle of slaughter would never be broken. Look how deep runs the lust for vengeance! Look even now, at that fair maid, one I escorted here myself, watch her there still at her work! Yet with today’s great victory a rare chance comes. We may once and for all sever this evil circle, and a great king must act boldly on it. May this be a famous day, Master Axl, from which our land can be in peace for years to come.”
This novel speaks of collective memory, the endless cycle of vengeance, justifications for war, the usefulness of forgetting the past and the usefulness of remembering the past. Is it possible to forget the past? If it were possible, would that be a good thing? Are we just empty shells if there is nothing to connect us to the past? I like that these questions were asked in terms of the greater scope of history/war and the smaller scope of marriage.
The atmosphere is strange and haunting. Ishiguro uses plain language that might seem shallow at first, but there are so many layers. I would love to read this again after learning more about the mythology and legends referenced. The narrator mostly follows Axl and Beatrice, but we occasionally follow other characters throughout the book. The narrative is fairly linear, but has many memory flashbacks. One thing that used to drive me crazy about Ishiguro’s style is that he’ll make a statement about some event and I’ll be thinking, “Wait, I don’t remember reading about this…Did I skip a chapter?” But within the chapter, he will elaborate through a character’s remembrance of the event. I am used to it now, but it may be unnerving for a first time reader. Maybe it is part of a greater plan to make us all feel like we are losing our memory!
“I know my god looks uneasily on our deeds of that day. Yet it’s long past and the bones lie sheltered beneath a pleasant green carpet. The young know nothing of them. I beg you leave this place, and let Querig do her work a while longer. Another season or two, that’s the most she’ll last. Yet even that may be long enough for old wounds to heal for ever, and an eternal peace to hold among us. Look how she clings to life, sir! Be merciful and leave this place. Leave this country to rest in forgetfulness.”
“Foolishness, sir. How can old wounds heal while maggots linger so richly? Or a peace hold for ever built on slaughter and a magician’s trickery? I see how devoutly you wish it, for your old horrors to crumble as dust. Yet they await in the soil as white bones for men to uncover.”
The elderly couple’s love for each other is the strongest part of the novel. I thought the way they referred to each other was strange at first, but I ended up finding it endearing. I really got a sense their anxieties, in the way they worried about the past they couldn’t remember and clung to each other to avoid separation. I was also anxious about them getting separated and about what secrets would emerge from their past! I wonder how young Edwin was affected by the spark of empathy Beatrice and Axl tried to inject into him and how it affected Master Wistan’s plan to make him the ultimate vengeful warrior. Maybe just as it is impossible to live completely unaware of the past, it is also difficult to completely eradicate the capability for empathy.
I have seen some criticisms that it reads like fan fiction, but I didn’t get the same impression. Of course, I am not overly familiar with King Arthur and didn’t even remember Sir Gaiwain was a pre-established character. I think my ignorance on Arthurian legend may have worked in the book’s favor! Setting it in a time of a pre-established legend was fantastic. We hear old stories of the brave leaders in legends and history books, but how often do we think critically about the ramifications of their actions and how those ancient actions reverberate through time and affect our present. It also allows you to explore about the questions raised, without getting caught up in the politics of a modern event. The references to a story that is rooted in most of our memories, at least a little, make for a deeper and more complex story.
“I was wondering, princess. Could it be our love would never have grown so strong down the years had the mist not robbed us the way it did? Perhaps it allowed old wounds to heal.”
The ending was really what raised this book to a five star for me and it totally ripped my heart out!
The Buried Giant seems to be a really love it or hate it to book. It really hit me at the right time in life and in the right emotional state. Even if it doesn’t end up being your favorite book, I think it is worth the read just because it raises interesting questions. I think it will be relevant for as long as there are wars and fighting (i.e. forever). It might be an especially interesting read for those who read many novels set during a war. It is very haunting and thought provoking. Definitely worth a reread!
“For I suppose there’s some would hear my words and think our love flawed and broken. But God will know the slow tread of an old couple’s love for each other, and understand how black shadows make part of its whole.”
It was interesting reading this between All the Light We Cannot See (WW2) and Redeployment (Iraq War, post 9/11). The haunting, melancholic atmosphere and the references to mythology made me think of The Ocean at the End of the Lane.