In May, I decided to catch up on some of the books my mom’s book club read this year. I really admire this group of intelligent, accomplished women with the most wonderful diversity of interests, and I can always count on a selection of books that will engage, enthrall, and even challenge me. On this past year’s docket was Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. Never having read anything by Ishiguro, I was excited to delve into his post-Arthurian allegory of love, memory, and loss.
The Buried Giant tells the story of Axl and Beatrice, an elderly Briton couple in Britain after the Romans have left and Arthur has died. A mist of forgetfulness has settled over the land, now living in an uneasy peace. At Beatrice’s insistence, Beatrice and Axl set forth on a journey to find their son whom they have not seen in years, though they don’t remember why. Along the way, they encounter a Saxon knight, a mysterious boy, and an old knight with conflicting motivations on a quest . Everyone has a secret, everyone bears the burden of their past, everyone finds comfort in memories that are not fully there.
Ishiguro’s Britain is a stark, beautiful, dreamy world full of unknown motivations and contradictory emotions. The language is spare, simple, and straightforward, reading somewhat like a YA novel. For me, it reminded me more of the syntax of the Arthurian legends we read in school. Axl and Beatrice, too, are simple and straight-forward, an old man devoted to his wife (whom he calls “Princess”) and an old woman pining for her child. Their single-minded focus on finding their son is their anchor (and the reader’s as well) in a world where dragons, evil spirits, and mysterious figures still exist. But the simplicity of the text and the characters belies the complexity of human emotion on display. Though they cannot remember much of anything due to the mist, Axl and Beatrice’s grief, fear, sorrow, and love are all very real. As they come closer to achieving both their own personal quest and those quests of their unexpected companions, the mist lifts some, and they each encounter flashes of the memories that have been hidden for so long. Beatrice’s pulling away from Axl and Axl’s horror and remorse upon discovering hurts against each other in the past are beautifully written, delving deep into the core of marriage and partnership.
My one quibble was the few chapters written from the old knight’s point of view. He was such a specific character that the drastically different tone of his sections pulled me out of the story. Additionally, his almost hysterical stream-of-conscious style was hard to follow at times, and though while those sections had purpose within the context of the tale as a whole, it took a while to find it.
Overall, this is a story about the power of love and the burden of memory and age. As humans, we fight so much to repress the experiences and memories that bring us pain and uplift the ones that bring us comfort and joy. As we age, though, a fear of death often can bring about a desire to remember and account for our life. The questions Ishiguro deals with–how do we account for truth and emotion in memory? At the end of life, what is most important, the past or present? Is it worth disrupting relationships, no matter how strong, with a desire for memory (or worse truth)?–are all questions that each one of us will deal with in some form. No matter how you answer these questions, Ishiguro wraps them for us in a subtly striking portrayal of real, messy, deep love. I can honestly say I’ve never read anything quite like The Buried Giant, and though I didn’t love it, it is one that has stuck with me months after I finished it.