It’s the dusk of Arthurian England; an uneasy peace lies over the land. Britons Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple, leave their village to travel to the town where they believe their estranged son lives. Their memories are cloudy, but this is not merely due to their age – it is an affliction that appears to have gripped all of Britain. It has caused them to be unsure of even the reality of their son, or the cause of their estrangement. Yet they find life as it is untenable, and even an uncertain journey gives them focus as they cling to each other through the bond of lives long shared.
The couple comes across others in their travels, such as a Saxon warrior, a knight of the Round Table and an orphaned boy whose deceptively placid eyes seem to hold the world in abeyance, but for the most part they rely mainly on themselves. Beset by dangers both physical and mystical, they eventually discover that the reason for their forgetfulness is not merely old age, but a magical spell that has been placed on the very breath of a dragon by none other than the great sorcerer Merlin. This discovery draws them in to witnessing dangers and adventures of honor and deceit based on buried animosities and bygone obligations, yet none of the threats prove more dire than that which they themselves face in confronting their own past.
Acclaimed author Kazuo Ishiguro has crafted in The Buried Giant a tale that is equal parts fantasy and literary fiction, full of ogres and dragons, knights and witches, but centered on his constant themes of memory and loss. Indeed, the honorable Saxon warrior Wistan and the good knight Sir Gawain (now a relic of the past, almost Don Quixote-like in purpose) may be clear in the tasks set before them, but acknowledge that the world may not be the better for it should they succeed. Still, the idea of turning from their purpose is unconscionable.
Yet always, at the heart of the story is the relationship between protective Axl and feisty Beatrice. Their affection for each other resonates, even when they bicker, even when ghosting memories suggest that their past may have held strife, anguish and hurts that each may have visited upon the other. Yet now, at this point in time, their greatest fear is that they may be separated. Beatrice, who suffers from an unknown malady, is the one who pushes them forward, but it is Axl who protects them from the dangers that may lurk in the shadows.
There were numerous instances of a traveler glancing back to the companion walking behind, only to find the latter vanished without trace. It was the fear of such an occurrence that compelled Beatrice intermittently to ask as they walked: “Are you still there, Axl?” To which he would answer routinely: “Still here, princess.”
The somewhat formal, dreamlike prose of The Buried Giant, and the almost melancholic feel of the story keep the fantastical elements from an excitement that may be expected from a novel that is so steeped in myth and lore. The focused, even flat narrative keeps the reader’s attention fastened on Axl and Beatrice who are, in the words of The New York Times, “two people who are now past all adventure.”
But although the surface of The Buried Giant may seem gray and inescapable, the idea that lies at its heart is immense: no matter how we struggle to cling to that which we hold dear, can one truly be anything other than alone? Do we triumph, or do we merely acquiesce?
This is a book that on the surface, may fail to excite. It may inspire respect more than enthusiasm. Yet it is haunting and beautiful, full of gradient grayscales that despite vibrancy, paint a deep and abiding picture full of underlying pathos, not to be missed.