by Marcia Allen, Collection Development
I just finished reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, The Buried Giant, and I was stunned by the superb quality of the writing and the subtle levels of meaning within the story. I am sure that I will return to this book again and again, because I know I missed some of the nuances the author has so carefully woven throughout the story. This seemingly simple little tale has much that is hidden.
The story concerns Axl and Beatrice, an older Briton couple living in a rough village long after the fall of Rome, who have decided to attempt a walking journey to visit their son. The two are lovingly devoted to each other, and Axl always addresses his wife as “Princess.” But something is amiss: Despite their eagerness to visit their son, they have little memory of the boy and are not quite sure where he actually lives. Like everyone else in their village, their memories have been clouded by the presence of an obliterating mist.
Nevertheless, off they go on their quest during which they will have all kinds of adventures. Among other events, they will encounter ogres and mysterious boatmen. They will meet treacherous monks and hostile Saxons. They will encounter odd-behaving children and a slumbering dragon. As they travel, it becomes clear to the reader that the one constant in their lives is their love for each other.
Like the travelers of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, they are joined by others seeking their own quests. They meet Wistan, a well-trained Saxon knight, who seeks something that will change the course of British history. They meet Edwin, a young boy accompanying Wistan, who bears an unusual wound. And they meet Gawain, a knight once dedicated to the service of King Arthur, whose quest brings him into brutal conflict with that of Wistan.
So, what is this delightful book telling us about humanity? It says much about the nature of memory. While we readers are appalled that the main characters have forgotten their son and don’t recall much about their own lives, we soon realize that their failing is not their fault. As Axl grasps at shadowy recollections of his past experiences, we come to understand that there was a deliberate plan for mass forgetfulness, one that robs the soul of individual memory but also averts some of the evil in the world. If memory returns, so, too, will forgotten grudges and hurt feelings that have long been buried.
The book also has much to say about death and the way the dying are conveyed from life. Both Axl and Beatrice are frail older people, and this journey they have undertaken will bring terrible stress to them. Troubled by both rough terrain and terrifying creatures, they will struggle valiantly to complete their quest, discovering as they go that their beliefs about their lives are far from fact. The final passages of the book are a poignant reminder of the uncertainty of life and a testament to the ability of letting go.
To whom will this book appeal? To anyone who treasures tales of the distant past. To those who love a bit of fantasy in their stories. To folks who appreciate symbolic meaning in everyday events of ordinary people. To anyone who loves a story of exquisitely worded language. This book will appeal on many different levels, and readers lucky enough to sample it will surely feel that they have been enthralled by a master storyteller.