Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple living in England in the time following King Arthur and the wars between Britons and Saxons (circa 6th century). Their son left some time ago, and now they wish to seek him out:
There’s a journey we must go on, and no more delay…
Setting off on their quest to their son’s village, they encounter many strange and wonderful things: ogres, a dragon, a knight of King Arthur’s, and they become entangled in events that are much bigger than themselves and their mission to find their son.
Throughout the land, people struggle to retain memories – they have a tendency to forget what they’re doing and the reasons for their immediate actions, as well as longer term memories. Beatrice and Axl, for example, can’t remember why their son left them.
The Buried Giant, Ishiguro’s first novel in 10 years, is one that crosses genre boundaries, covering as it does Arthurian legend, mythology and fantasy. This, of course, confused some critics, who don’t seem to know how to deal with a novels that ignore preconceived ideas about what a literary novel should and shouldn’t be. Speaking at this year’s Hay Festival, Ishiguro himself expressed his surprise at the “prejudice against ogres”. I personally liked the combination of different elements, and I’m not sure why some critics are so troubled by it – it’s as though they can’t cope with any deviation from “the norm”, and suggests a distinct lack of imagination on their part.
I thought that the use of memory within the novel was interesting. There are many examples in fiction of people wishing to recover the memories that they have lost for various reasons – Man Booker Prize long listed The Chimes deals with a society where the formation of new memories is both prohibited and prevented, for example, and Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity has the eponymous Bourne suffering from amnesia. But The Buried Giant also explores whether the loss of memory could also be to our benefit:
Is it not better that some things remain hidden from our minds?
I enjoyed this extension of a relatively common theme, and the idea that what we see as a curse may actually be protecting us from bigger truths – truths that could be detrimental on not just a personal level, but for also for the peace of a nation.
Whilst I enjoyed the novel overall, there were some aspects that I found a little irritating. Much of the conversation between Axl and Beatrice was repetitive, particularly Axl’s insistence on calling Beatrice “Princess”. I also found that the ultimate outcome was somewhat predictable, although I did find the final chapter to be incredibly poignant.
I enjoyed The Buried Giant, although I realise that it won’t be to everyone’s taste. Of Ishiguro’s previous novels, I’ve only read Never Let Me Go, but both of these suggest to me that Ishiguro is a wonderfully original author who explores interesting themes and ideas, and I look forward to reading more of his work.