The Skeletons in England’s Closet

Review: Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Buried Giant’

Kazuo Ishiguro / AP

Kazuo Ishiguro is the author of seven novels that are distinguished both by their charm and by the nastiness of their subject matter. His stories are sympathetic portraits of neglectful mothers (A Pale View of Hills), aging fascists (An Artist of the Floating World), Nazi sympathizers (The Remains of the Day), and clones marked for organ harvesting and death (Never Let Me Go). They circle around unpleasant revelations and buried memories: In When We Were Orphans, the hero, detective Christopher Banks, discovers that his whole life has been made possible because his mother has been kept in sexual slavery. It makes you sick, when you read it. Then you set the book down, and you think, "What a charming read."

This charm comes in part from Ishiguro’s egoless prose. Seemingly uninterested in developing an identifiable style, Ishiguro allows each novel to adopt its own particular, often unassuming voice. As Stevens, a butler, narrates his own story in The Remains of the Day, we come to recognize a voice that is repressed, overly scrupulous, educated but not quite educated enough—and above all, defensive and not entirely willing to acknowledge itself as having a self at all.

So what stands out most in The Buried Giant, Ishiguro’s latest book, is that it opens with as pretty a sentence you might wish to see: "You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated. There were instead miles of desolate, uncultivated land…" In telling his fairy tale story, Ishiguro adopts a fairy tale tone. The result is a book that comes across as much more artificial than his others—both for good and for ill.

The Buried Giant is set in an England of the distant past, some time after Arthur, who is deceased but still a memory. Ogres and dragons are real. It’s dimly remembered and understood by everyone who lives there that Arthur, a Briton, subjugated the Saxons. Yet Britons and Saxons now live side-by-side in a peace that neither can understand, but which they are willing to attribute to Arthur’s virtue as a ruler.

In fact, in this England, most memories are lost. Whole years disappear, as do people. Axl and Beatrice, two elderly Britons, slowly recall that they have a son. They don’t know how they lost him, or even really where he is, but they resolve that they will journey to his village to find him. Along the way, they pick up a Saxon warrior who claims to recognize Axl from the past, and Sir Gawain, a knight who is on a mission to slay the dragon Querig. Querig, they discover, is why the memories disappear. They also discover that their memories may not be something that they want back. There is a reason that England has forgotten all these things. (There’s the nastiness.)

The Buried Giant, Ishiguro’s first book in six years, is certainly the most challenging he has attempted since 1995’s The Unconsoled. It's a tale about two people who can’t remember anything on a journey toward a place they can’t remember through a country that can’t remember for reasons they can’t remember. Of course, James Wood famously claimed that The Unconsoled "invented its own category of badness." Not everybody enjoys a book where the author has set himself an agility test.

What category of goodness (or badness) does The Buried Giant fall into? It depends on which part of the book you are reading. When Ishiguro focuses on Axl and Beatrice, the novel couldn’t be better. Its self-conscious beauty, however, means that it can become merely self-conscious. Much of the book feels unnecessary, particularly his attempts to fill the story with political intrigue. Ishiguro spells out the devastation that remembering could wreak on England so painstakingly that you suspect he has decided most readers would simply not be smart enough to understand the book if he told his story about the price of memory simply by focusing on a married couple. The effect is of someone showing you a very delicate piece of craftsmanship and then yelling in your ear: "Now, these buried giants right here, they are a symbol for ethnic tension in the Balkans."

But when Ishiguro decides to trust you, it’s just too good a novel to be dragged down by the bad. About halfway through the story, when Axl and Beatrice and Gawain are journeying through an underground tunnel, Beatrice becomes convinced that they are surrounded by the skeletons of children. Gawain turns on her: "What do you suggest, mistress? That I committed this slaughter?"

Beatrice is suggesting nothing of the kind. But Gawain, who remembers much more than he lets on, circles around a truth he finds unspeakable but feels compelled to speak. What has been done, he is willing to say, needed to be done. What he has done, he will not say. What Axl—whom he implies was just as mixed up in this slaughter—has done, he won’t say either.

All of this material will be worked over later until every drop of meaning has been squeezed out for you. It still doesn’t ruin this suggestive and uncertain moment. Reading it, the reader understands that the magic that has allowed England to forget this buried slaughter cannot really bring peace. Evil deeds leave traces behind them which cannot be erased—in marriages, in countries, in the relationships between parents and their children. Axl and Beatrice are separated both by their forgetfulness and—later—by their memories.

Eventually, England will remember. What happens after that, nobody knows. We only know what happens to Axl and Beatrice, which is not entirely hopeful. Still, Ishiguro chooses to leave the book with the right story: one of two people who love one another, have hurt one another, and chosen one another despite this. One can only hope that by the time he writes his eighth novel, he’ll have regained a little trust in his readership—or at least forgotten why he stopped trusting them in the first place.