One of the things I most admire about Kazuo Ishiguro is the way he writes novels of different genres without any self-conscious literary games. I love ‘The Remains of the Day,’ a haunting historical novel set in a large country house, but then was thrilled when I saw ‘Never Let Me Go’ was science fiction, set in the future. These books are not post-modern re-workings or pastiches of established forms, instead they are refreshingly proud of their individual literary heritages and sit firmly within traditional genre conventions. The cover and reviews of ‘The Buried Giant’ hinted at the fantasy genre and I was intrigued to see if Ishiguro would be able to bring equal charm and conviction to a new literary form.
The answer was a resounding yes. ‘The Buried Giant’ completely won me over and, in a quiet way, is likely to be one of my favourite reads of the year. It’s set in Olde England, post-Roman, but pre-Norman conquest. The land is war-torn, barely recovering from the Arthurian battles (not the Disney ones, the really bloody ones from Malory’s ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’). Life is primitive, and society is made up of small insular communities, fearful and aggressive towards outsiders and scarcely more pleasant to their members. In addition to these semi-historical difficulties, there are supernatural threats. Some can be conquered by human strength, such as the various powerful monsters that prowl outside the settlement walls. Others are less tangible, there seems to be a ‘mist’ of forgetfulness over the whole land. Memories are hard to hold on to, and even harder to share. This is not just a concern for the past; in the present, children are aware that if they wander too far from home it won’t be long before their parents stop worrying and forget that they ever existed. It also adds a level of dread and pathos to the main quest that makes up the narrative, Axl and Beatrice have fought the mist and the habits of inertia to leave their home and visit their long-estranged son. They are only working from incomplete memories however, both have lost hold of the reason why he first left them or even how long ago this was.
For Alx and Beatrice, things seem simple. They wish to understand the ‘mist’ or fog of forgetfulness that has infected the country and they trust to their enduring love to see them through all difficulties. These two beliefs become firmly intermingled when, early on in their journey, they meet a single women who has been abandoned to her quest without a companion. She tells them of a boatman who carried her husband away from her to an island whose inhabitants all live alone. She is hurt and angry, knowing that there are some exceptional cases, of men and women who are ferried over together. The boatman explains his own methods ‘If it’s a couple … who claim their bond is so strong, then I must ask them to put their most cherished memories before me. I’ll ask one, then the other to do this. Each must speak separately, In this way the real nature of their bond is soon revealed.’ For the rest of the novel Alx and Beatrice will be haunted by the fear of this moment, the separation and revelations it could bring.
I would probably have loved this book for the beautiful romance and the mystical quest alone, but, like the best fantasy books, ‘The Buried Giant’ is not just escapism, it has important relevance for life today. Frankly, I couldn’t believe while reading that this book was published in 2015, and not in the wake of the Brexit vote. Its presentation of an utterly disunited country, with Briton and Saxons tribes separated by customs, allegiances and even language. The war-torn land and fearful, isolated settlements seem far closer to historical truth than any myth of an independent Britain’s glorious and shared heritage. ‘The Buried Giant’ is offers oblique commentary on what makes a nation, and the conclusion has to be that openness and a willingness to accept rather than demonise strangers are of paramount importance. Ishiguro’s latest novel is beautiful, thought-provoking, moving and very timely, a perfect example of how fantasy novels can be essential for understanding ourselves and the world around us.