What if you forgot most of your life? If your past only came to you in flickers, rather than memories?
In The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro explores the many ways we interact with our pasts, but does so in an Arthurian fantasy landscape. There are knights, dragons, ogres and malevolent magic, but there is also love – though less of the ardent variety and more of the deeper, softer stuff that, while less flashy, makes up the great benefit of finding a partner in the first place. In fact, in this world, the love that the two main protagonists, Axl and Beatrice, share for each other is one of the few things that transcends the strange mist that seems to be ridding the people of their memories.
A premise like this seems like there’s only one way it could go – find the cause of the memory-erasing mist and get rid of it, post-haste!
But nobody seems to be in such a hurry to do so. In fact, there seem to be plenty of good things that come from a slippery mind – namely, grudges aren’t held. Ancient enemies forget their causes for war. Daily consternations are ignored because, unlike our commutes, our ever present tasks, for the denizens of this world things tend to refresh themselves. Not everything is whisked away, but enough goes to leave the present pleasantly ethereal.
Ishiguro tells the story in myth-making prose – a stately assemblage of imagery, character, and dialogue that reflects a more refined age than likely ever existed. Occasionally, the conversations contain so many introspective twists and turns as to stretch credulity, but then, we are in a world where Gawain the Green Knight features, so perhaps it’s fair game to give casual back-and-forths the same heavy sentences as would befit a speech.
What unravels, though, is an enjoyable tale with an unusual cast of characters. There’s a warrior, yes, and a knight, sure. But they are a far cry from your usual stereotypes. Axl and Beatrice, meanwhile, have a loving rapport that, through deft use of dialogue, keeps us curious as to how they really feel towards one another. There are all the hints, the subtle tones, the questions left unanswered as in a real relationship, and as a result, they both feel real. They feel like two people whose only crutch left in the world is each other.
The Buried Giant is a novel not meant to be devoured. It’s slow, it’s steady, and its characters grow on you over time. There aren’t overwhelming personalities, and the plot itself is not the stuff of heroic battles or larger-than-life episodes. Instead, it’s an exploration of what might happen to society, and to ourselves, if who we are faded away with the end of the day.
All in all, The Buried Giant is a journey worth taking if you want a break from your standard fantasy fare. Don’t expect frenetic action and ferocious battle. Go hunting for characters and questions, and you’ll like what you find.