So, you get a gift. The giver is someone who can always surprise you with his unique style. As you turn the object over in your hands you can clearly tell it is something that was finely crafted and is somehow both sturdy and delicately wrought. But…”What is it? What does it do?” you ask. “Well, see, you turn this lever and twist it here and pop that open and hold it like this.” “Oh. Yes. It’s lovely, beautiful even. But…which is it…is it a can opener or is it a flashlight?” There is a small pause before he replies, “Exactly!!”
So how shall I describe The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro? Notwithstanding that it is populated with ogres, pixies and a dragon, I wouldn’t call it a fantasy like The Hobbit. And although it is set in sixth or seventh century England, a time following the collapse of the Roman Empire when medieval Europe was experiencing economic and cultural decline – and there is talk of lingering hostility between the Britons and the Saxons following the bloody war years - it certainly is not historical fiction. You may think that because Sir Gawain, the nephew of the now-dead but legendary King Arthur, enters the picture as an old and tottering knight on a mission of his own that the novel should be classified as a myth…or perhaps an allegory. The only thing I can say about its genre with any certainty is this: The Buried Giant is odd.
The main characters are Britons Axl and Beatrice, an elderly married couple who live in a warren cut into a hillside. Their neighbors have taken away their only candle for fear they are too old to be trusted not to start a fire by some careless act of neglect. Beatrice resents this and refuses to resign herself to living in the dark. It is a time when the land is covered in a dense and unyielding mist that clouds everything, including memory and all thoughts of the past. In a momentary break in her own fog, Beatrice suddenly remembers that Axl and she have a grown son living in another village which might be reached within a few days walk. She convinces her husband that they should leave the place of darkness and go to find their son. Despite their age and infirmity, and although they realize the journey will be dangerous, they set out to do just that. But danger can come in many shapes and forms; it can come from without as well as from within. Sometimes it comes with remembering the past.
The landscape of this novel is more than figuratively desolate and at times it is overwhelmingly atmospheric and as weighty as a Delta summer. But there are also moments of comic relief, kindness, and devotion. That Axl and Beatrice love each other is reinforced for the reader with astonishingly simple grace: "Are you still there, Axl?" "I'm still here, Princess."
If, as I did, you loved The Remains Of The Day or Never Let Me Go and you expect this newest novel to be similar in some way to either, you should prepare yourself to be disappointed. To approach this book with any such expectation is to do it an injustice; it is maddeningly unique. To be honest, at times I asked myself, “What am I reading here…and why?” If Don Quixote married The Wizard of Oz and begot Morte d’Arthur, would The Buried Giant be a second cousin once removed? The answer came back, Ishiguro is, after all, Ishiguro. . Masterful writing rests within the hands of the masterful writer. No surprise there. Truthfully, I am currently unable to grab hold of what makes this book so mesmerizing. Perhaps I lack the mental muscle to properly dissect it. Not on the first go-round in any event.
I would be hard-pressed to rate this book with “stars.” It is so multi-layered it demands re-reading to get to the core…the sweet nutmeat…the “aha” kernel. Did I love it? Did I like it? My opinion should not matter. My advice to those of you who are determined to press onward through the labyrinth (and I do recommend as much): relinquish your preconceptions, open your imagination, and stay buckled in. The roads are rough, bumpy and will chill a person. You may get bitten by a memory - which can fester or leave a scar. Or overcome by the past as it rushes towards you and makes you wobbly, dazed and uncertain. You may get lost in the mist that clings to every branch and bog. But if you make it through, you will know what I've been trying to tell you...and further explanation will not be required.