It has been ten years since Kazuo Ishigura’s last novel. The questions in many readers’ minds as to what changes they will encounter in his style and persona are peculiarly appropriate. The vagaries imposed on personal identity by the passage of time, the fogging and subsuming of memory, is one of the key elements of his new novel, The Buried Giant. Set in the ogre beset countryside of a post Arthurian Britain, life is dominated by a mist which deprives people of their memories, both distant and recent. The threat of ogres and other monsters, along with the awareness of lost memory, has made people cling more tightly to their provincial lives, rarely traveling from or even leaving their villages.
The story features a small cast of main characters. First, there is an old Briton couple, deeply attached to each other, who venture forth on a journey to visit their son, who they feel sure is awaiting them at a village some small distance away. Next is a Saxon warrior and his young protege. The protege is a young boy, kidnapped by a fell beast, whom the warrior adopts after saving, for the child was brave and shunned now by his own people. Finally there is an aged Sir Gawain, whose quest to slay a dangerous dragon terrorizing the area is decades behind schedule.
The story is filled with intense and exciting scenes of terror and adventure, at times both gothic and macabre in tone, but the pace and the reader’s experience of The Buried Giant is controlled by the unusual tone of its dialogue. The novel’s dialogue is marked by two things, an antiquated style, and a formal courteousness of speech, incorporating a recognition and restatement of the subject matter and ideas being communicated, regardless of the potential hostility of intent involved between those talking. Though some early reviewers have termed this style ‘faux-archaic’, and off putting, I strongly disagree and found it to be very engaging and appropriate to a setting in which mist and uncertainty pervades all. It not only makes great sense that the need for clarity has become embedded in the characters’ speech, but also reinforces the atmosphere and accentuates the action of the story.
At the core of The Buried Giant lie deep questions. Does the mist have a beneficial element? Does it blunt the ethnic hatred between the Saxons and Britons? Does it soften the relations of husband and wives? Is the cost of the noonday sun more than humanity is capable of bearing peacefully? At the same time, without memory what is life? This is the question one of the characters asks here. “I wonder if what we feel in our hearts today isn’t like these raindrops falling on us from the soaked leaves above, even though the sky itself long stopped raining. I’m wondering if without our memories, there’s nothing for it but for our love to fade and die.”
The Buried Giant is structured around a number of compelling parables. One is an idyllic island in which each person passes their days completely alone, separated from their loved ones by the loss of memory, except in those rare cases in which a love is so strong that it can survive the passage. The worthiness of love is a matter left in the hands of the boatmen whose duty it is to both judge and ferry their customers. The other parable is the re-imagining of the quest to slay a dragon. In both cases the parables are not allegorical at all. The answers lie in the hearts and minds of the readers of The Buried Giant, an audience which I strongly encourage you to join. This is a rare and a wonderful book which, like life, is worth the journey and the hazard of experiencing for yourself.