Axl and Beatrice are an aging married couple in the time of King Arthur. They’re on a quest to visit their son and face otherworldly threats like ogres and pixies as well as more regular dangers like Saxons on the road. They meet a boy named Edwin, who has a secret, and a warrior named Wistan, who is on a quest of his own. Making matters even more difficult, there’s a mind-fogging mist covering the land that makes people forget things that just happened to them moments ago and the past is a puzzling blank. Axl and Beatrice would also like to solve the mystery of this mist, but first, they need to remember where their son lives. This fantasy tackles the themes of love, forgiveness, and war- but, be warned, this is a love it or hate it kind of read and will not appeal to everyone.
This is the first book I’ve read by Ishiguro and my feelings about it are complicated. At first, I hated it because of the plodding pace and the fact that, although the author hinted at plenty of magical creatures and cryptic places, he didn’t do anything with them. But then, Ishiguro layered the themes on each other and brought the novel to a conclusion that I can’t stop thinking about… so I’m torn. Depending on where I was in the book, this was either a one star or a five star- so I’m going to come down right in the middle with three.
The mist is so pervasive throughout this story that it almost a character all of its own: “It’s queer the way the world’s forgetting people and things from only yesterday and the day before that. Like a sickness come over us all.” … She had said this while looking away into the mist-layered distance, but now she looked straight at him and he could see her eyes were filled with sadness and yearning.”pg 21, ebook. A life lived without memories makes day-to-day living more simple, but remembering and appreciating the good times, almost impossible.
Throughout this story, I was cheering for Axl and Beatrice to remember their shared past. They’re my favorite characters in this tale. “Yet are you so certain, good mistress, you wish to be free of this mist? Is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?” “It may be so for some, father, but not for us. Axl and I wish to have again the happy moments we shared together. To be robbed of them is as if a thief came in the night and took what’s most precious from us.” pg 113, ebook
Wistan is a Saxon warrior beyond compare, but he does not love Britons: “It was Britons under Arthur slaughtered our kind. … We’ve a duty to hate every man, woman and child of their blood. So promise me this. Should I fall before I pass to you my skills, promise me you’ll tend well this hatred in your heart. And should it ever flicker or threaten to die, shield it with care till the flame takes hold again.”pg 172, ebook. Despite his efforts to remain detached, he develops a soft spot for Axl and Beatrice (Britons). Perhaps if he didn’t label people under blanket terms like “Britons” then he’d feel more kindly disposed towards them. Blind hate softens when you get to know someone and understand who they are. I think that is part of Ishiguro’s point… maybe.
There were plenty of confusing moments in The Buried Giant for me. What’s with the old lady slaughtering small animals in that ruin? What’s with the island where people go to live entirely by themselves? (Metaphor for death or a trip to fairyland?) What’s with Edwin’s memories? Or the priests who feed themselves to the vicious birds for things they can’t remember? Or that ending? (Geez, that ending!) So, I can see how this would make an excellent book club choice because there is so much that can be interpreted different ways and discussed.
Picking read alikes was tricky because the tone, pacing, and complexity of this book is so unique. The Last Unicorn is a fairy tale with layers, like this read, but for young adults. Mythago Wood might be another solid choice, but it takes place in the modern era rather than the distant past. Or you could try: Suldrun’s Garden. I read that a long time ago and didn’t like it much, but it is a classic fantasy book set close to the same time as The Buried Giant.
Thanks for reading!