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Posted on 19 Mar 2015 in Fiction |

KAZUO ISHIGURO The Buried Giant. Reviewed by Folly Gleeson

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buriedgiantThe Booker-winning author of Remains of the Day has created a moving and thought-provoking excursion into post-Arthurian Britain.

This mysterious and beautiful story is set in Dark-Ages Britain in the post Roman-occupation period, not long after the times of King Arthur. Briton and Saxon tribes inhabit the land in an uneasy peace; a peace that was perhaps brokered by Arthur. The first pages make it clear that ogres are to be part of the tale and that the land is much wilder than today.

Axl and Beatrice, two aging Britons who live in a community housed in mounds burrowed into the earth, have begun to feel a need for change. A lack of respect from the other villagers and a confusing mist of forgetfulness prompt them to go on a journey to find their son, whom they believe lives in a village not too far away. The mist is pervasive and obscures many of their memories. They have only a fitful recollection of fairly recent events and a very rudimentary memory of their son:

A strong, handsome face, that much I remember. But the colour of his eyes, the turn of his cheek, I’ve no memory of them.

Travelling fearfully and treating each other with tenderness, they encounter a strange pair of characters in an ancient villa during a rainstorm – a boatman and his aged female tormentor. This encounter seems strangely foreboding and Beatrice questions the boatman and receives answers about his activities. The significance of these answers is not clear at this point.

Shortly they reach a Saxon village, much better organised than their own, but when they arrive the whole community is in uproar as ogres have taken a 12-year-old boy, Edwin. He is subsequently rescued by a powerful Saxon warrior named Wistan, but the villagers are dismayed to discover that the child has been bitten, and wish to destroy him for fear that he will become a monster himself.

Axl and Beatrice help Wistan escape with the boy, and as they travel they encounter an aged Sir Gawain, dressed in armour, resting sun-dappled under an oak. His appearance suggests a Tenniel drawing of a knight from Alice and Wonderland or even Don Quixote:

They turned into the clearing, and as they approached the oak, Axl saw that indeed, the knight was no threatening figure. He appeared to be very tall, but beneath his armour Axl supposed him thin, if wiry. His armour was frayed and rusted, though no doubt he had done all he could to preserve it. His tunic once white, showed repeated mending. The face protruding from the armour was kindly and creased; above it, several long strands of snowy hair fluttered from an otherwise bald head. He might have been a sorry sight, fixed to the ground, legs splayed before him, except that the sun falling through the branches above was now dappling him in patterns of light and shade that made him look almost like one enthroned.

After a violent skirmish between Wistan and a soldier sent by his enemy, the Briton Lord Brennus, Wistan, Edwin, Axl and Beatrice travel to a monastery full of eccentric monks who practise a form of self-imposed suffering to expiate a great but unclear historical wrong. Beatrice is able to consult a wise healer, Jonas, regarding a slight pain she experiences. The monks are divided over the best way to treat Wistan and there are various kinds of deceit perpetrated by these monks and even by Sir Gawain. Some confusing but very exciting action takes place between Wistan and soldiers sent by Lord Brennus.

If you can take ogres, demons and dragons in your stride, then this story is a gentle, interesting quest narrative; Wistan searches for the dragon Querig, Edwin searches for his mother, and Axl and Beatrice search for their son. But of course that is not all. The questions asked and conversations had by these characters lead to profound hints and allusions concerning history, violence, love and, importantly, the role of memory. There are suggestions of past atrocities and brutal murders and battles between Saxon and Briton. The miasma that surrounds the characters obscures much to do with memories that are vital to human life:

There, princess, there’s nothing to fear. Our memories aren’t gone forever, just mislaid somewhere on account of this wretched mist.

The prose flows with a stately elegance even in exciting scenes like Wistan’s escape from the soldiers at the monastery, and through the slow escape on the perilous underground path from the deceit of the monks. And there are many other pleasures to be found in the text: for example, delicately expressed symbols and metaphors for light and understanding abound. One I particularly loved was Ishiguro’s use of the sun as a motif. He uses it many times and it cunningly gives illumination to the images he describes, as well as being a splendid metaphor for the need for clarity in the lives of the characters:

Outside the birds were now in chorus. Beatrice turned her gaze towards the window and the sun leaking past the cloth hung over it.

The novel also celebrates the materiality of everyday life, with continuing references to things like cloaks and the need for them, the importance of a candle, the intrusion of landscape and weather into daily life. There is a subtle authorial presence throughout; Ishiguro occasionally points out ways in which the Britain of the book differs from today, and in the final pages the author takes an almost active part in the story.

Of course, the main question he poses concerns the role of memory in our lives, both private and public, but this is presented in such a way as to make the reader discover the questions raised, in an almost Socratic way. The reader is enticed to ask who or what is the Buried Giant, and the answer is not comforting.

Reading this book is a moving and very pleasing experience. Don’t let the tiresome debate about fantasy and realism raised by some commentators get in the way of the thought-provoking enjoyment provided by The Buried Giant.

Kazuo Ishiguro The Buried Giant Faber 2015 PB 352pp $29.99

Folly Gleeson was a lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading history and fiction.

You can buy this book from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.