Master craftsman back to fine form after a decade
There are books that give themselves up easily, that start hard and race towards a crashing finish, and then there are books - Colm Toibin's Brooklyn is one such - that are illuminated backwards, so that the ending is what brings up the colour and beauty in everything that has gone before.
This is the kind of book the Japanese-born English novelist Kazuo Ishiguro has written. The Buried Giant is his first novel in a decade, after the stunning and very sad Never Let Me Go. His other books are spaced far closer together, usually only four or five years apart.
Those ten years can be felt in the pace and spatial dimensions of the novel. The Buried Giant crosses a vast, bleak landscape, and carries with it an echo-y sense of history, until it finally comes to a finish so finely tipped and perfect that it almost sends you straight back to the beginning. Not in a 'what clues did I miss?' kind of way, but out of the desire to see the story again in the full knowledge of where it goes.
And yet, the start is slow, and initially puzzling. The book is set in ancient Britain, some time after the rule of King Arthur, when Saxons and Britons live in peace with each other that is suspicious but observant. A man, Axl, and his wife, Beatrice, decide to leave the communal mound where they live. Annoyed that the villagers have decided to take their nightly candle away - the fear is that, being now old, they may overturn it - and increasingly jeered at by the children, they decide to go in search of their estranged son, who they believe to be in a village two days' journey away.
Initially, the book feels distant, allegorical almost, and at first it permits this distance, even invites the alienating effect of historical perspective. Axl and Beatrice are obscured by their own failures of memory, the mist that has fallen across their past and the past of all the land, so that the village can, one minute, be in uproar about a missing child, then fall to quarrelling the next, child entirely forgotten. But gradually, carefully, Ishiguro closes the gap, thanks to the use of intimate details, the description of a cloak, say, and the impeccable, deceptive clarity of his writing.
The uncertainty and frailty of Axl and Beatrice as they set off on their journey is unsettling. In a land where ogres, vicious pixies and dragons still roam, an elderly couple, with little support but their love for each other and a dim recollection of the son they haven't seen for years, seem destined for an evil fate. But the journey, unfolding at the slow but steady pace of their feet, is a revelation.
Literally, a revelation, as they begin to remember slivers of their past, flashes of things, not always comfortable or happy, that have gone before. The dislocation of having no context to their lives, only an endless, faintly cloudy present, gradually gives way to a more honed if painful understanding, and the knowledge that there is historical purpose to the mist that fogs men's minds. "My memory's of God himself betrayed," says Axl at one point, "And I'm not sorry if the mist robs me further of it." Later, he asks, "who knows what will come when quick-tongued men make ancient grievances rhyme with fresh desire for land and conquest."
Lack of light, the fear of dark and dark things, these hamper Axl and Beatrice before they set out, but once on the road, there begins a series of strange encounters - with Gawain, one of Arthur's knights, now old and weary, a divided community of monks, a Saxon warrior trained to fight by Britons, a youth expelled from his village because they fear a strange mark on his chest, and a mysterious boatman - that lead them steadily off their path. With these companions, they explore the demands of their different gods, testing against each other the wisdom of forgetting or the need to remember. Slowly, deftly, the story deepens. The pace picks up steadily and the sureness of the writing guides the reader to an ending that is quite extraordinarily beautiful.
The Remains Of The Day, Never Let Me Go and The White Countess were all made into successful films, and Ishiguro has written various other screenplays. The Buried Giant, however, I suspect is unfilmable, although ironically, what it reminds most strongly of is an Ingmar Bergman film - that strange mix of the allegorical, fantastical, and poignantly human.
Ishiguro was described as "a master craftsman" by Margaret Atwood, and he is every inch that throughout this book, from the self-confidence and certainty of the slow start, through to the final, profound and very moving, pages.
The Buried Giant
Faber and Faber £13.99