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.
It’s not often that I read a book where I feel like I’ve sunk deep into the pages, surrounded by beautiful imagery and storytelling. There’s something so wonderful about that twilight state, and about being transfixed by what is happening on the page. I found myself staying up far too late at night to read The Buried Giant, a story of myth and legend, of the power of memories both found and lost and of relationships.
“But then again I wonder if what we feel in our hearts today isn’t like these raindrops still falling on us from the soaked leaves above, even though the sky itself long stopped raining. I’m wondering if without our memories, there’s nothing for it but for our love to fade and die.”
Memory is ever-changing in this book. The mists of the dragon cloud the minds of the villagers, and no one is quite sure about the past. That is not to say that everyone starts each day afresh; sinister feelings remain, and people are often guided by their instincts of long-forgotten wrongs. Axl and Beatrice are exiled to the outskirts of their village, but no one can remember why. The couple suddenly remembers their son – but not what happened to him, or where exactly he might be now. There are bigger memories afoot, and while there is a journey towards the dragon – a quest! – it is merely more mist, hiding the true nature of the story.
Ishiguro takes the traditional Arthurian legend and twists it, using fables and myth as a continuous thread. Gawain is no longer a shining knight, but a battle-weary knight, exhausted and longing for rest. There are dragons and water sprites and trolls, but they are not as powerful or as innocent as our fairy tales might suggest. After all, are fables not just memories, crafted into stories that are shared again and again? Some have suggested that this story references forgiveness, but I’d suggest that it asks us about a deliberate choice – whether to remember or to forget. Gawain would protect the mist that allows people to forget in order to prevent the memories of the past from returning, but he cannot stop the lingering thoughts and feelings from coming through. Axl and Beatrice must confront their past together in order to assure each other of their true affection, but when painful recollections are revealed by one, the other must choose to let that go, preferring instead to see consistency and affections as a greater asset.
For me, as much as The Buried Giant is a story of memory, it’s ultimately the story of a marriage. Axl and Beatrice have been together a lifetime and The Buried Giant allows that long term relationship to play before your eyes. This is where I’ve differed with friends, and perhaps it is personal connection that makes this such a haunting book for me. I see my parents and their life together in Axl and Beatrice; I see my grandparents, and my siblings, and my friends. I see the power of age to remove memories from the mind while bringing others to the forefront that haven’t been remembered in years.
“Axl and I wish to have again the happy moments we shared together. To be robbed of them is as if a thief came in the night and took what’s most precious from us.”
We make choices in our relationships. We choose to remember, or to forget, the things that hurt us and that stay with us. We will all face the boatman at some point in our lives; whether our love can surmount the memories of the past is a challenge we must all face, and not all of us will succeed. All we can do is to be there for each other, in the good and and bad, and to make the decision for ourselves if the joy we find in each other can outweigh the hurt we can cause in return.
“Are you still there, Axl?”
“Still here, princess.”
The Buried Giant is published by Penguin Random House of Canada and is available for purchase from your favourite indie bookseller, national retailer or online distributor. A copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. ISBN: 9780345809407, 352 pages.