Some books you read just click with you and your psyche. Others take time, and persistence, to grasp and understand. Still others you grapple with and wrestle with and sometimes force yourself to read, but you never really believe the story. And then there are those you begin to read and discover they’re lousy.
I fell in love with The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro almost from the first page.
He’s the author of several novels and others works, but I had only previously read the novel Never Let Me Go and Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall (I reviewed Nocturnes here in 2011). I have not read what is his best known work, The Remains of the Day, but I did see the movie, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson (1993).
But The Buried Giant is something else entirely, a story of post-Arthurian Britain that is an unusual love story, a journey to find a son, a tale of intrigue and conspiracy, and ultimately a beautifully done essay on memory.
Axl and his wife Beatrice are elderly Britons, living what is inside a hollowed-out hill in community with other Britons. The Romans abandoned the country many years before, but locals still find their ruined country houses and other buildings. One wave of Saxons has arrived, and peace, if uneasy, exists between the Saxons and the Britons.
The couple can remember they had a son, but not much more than that. In fact, everyone’s memory seems to suffer, and it’s not a result of age for memory loss afflicts the young as well. Eventually Axl and Beatrice leave their community to find their son.
They first stop in a Saxon village, and find the villagers in great agitation. An ogre has carried off a village boy of 12 named Edwin. He’s rescued by a visiting warrior named Wistan, but the villagers discover the buy has a bite mark on his stomach, and it is not the mark of the ogre. To save the boy’s life from his own village, Wistan convinces Axl and Beatrice to take the boy with them, and Wistan joins them as well. Wistan is something of a mystery, on a quest for something he doesn’t disclose.
Along the way they encounter an aging Sir Gawain, he of Arthur’s Roundtable; they take refuge in a monastery where they find friends and enemies. They gradually learn what is causing the problem with people’s memories. And, yes, there’s even a dragon.
The relationship of Axl and Beatrice are the heart of the story, and the reason the novel hooked me from the beginning. Their love for each other is palpable; Axl refers to his wife as “Princess.” They are on a journey together, and as time passes they are remembering things about each other, not all of them good. But their love is steadfast, and of all the things “the buried giant” could refer to, I finally decided it was the love between this aging and sometimes infirm couple.
It’s a beautiful story, filled with a bit of both literal and figurative magic (Merlin hasn’t been gone that long, after all). In a culture where everything is changing – the last vestiges of Roman rule disappearing, the threat of more Saxons and other tribes coming, the breakdown of law and order before the rise of feudalism, it is the love of two elderly people that holds fast.
Top photograph: An early 7th-century Anglo-Saxon helmet from the burial ship found at Sutton Hoo.