Camelot, it’s not. The Dark Ages shadow the setting of Kazuo Ishiguro’s curious new novel, The Buried Giant (Knopf, digital galley), a fable of sixth-century Britain and of myth and memory. The Romans are long gone, King Arthur is dead, and Britons and Saxons share a gloomy land of forest and fens where ogres roam and pixies lurk. A mysterious mist acts like a collective amnesia, shrouding the countryside and whispering rumors of the she-dragon Querig.
Out of this fog emerge a long-married, elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, tender with one another and their frailties. They have vague memories of a long-lost son, and after their hill-warren neighbors take away their single candle, they decide to visit him in his village several days away. Beatrice also seeks help for a nagging pain in her side and wants to learn more of the mist that melts memories good and bad. She has heard of a ferryman who won’t let them cross a river together without questioning their mutual devotion. What if she cannot remember all the intimacies of their life and they are separated?
But Axl, who sometimes recalls flashes of a time when he was perhaps a soldier in the bloody wars against the Saxons, is wary. “Promise, princess, you’ll not forget what you feel in your heart for me at this moment. For what good’s a memory returning from the mist if it’s only to push away another?”
This being a quest tale of sorts, Axl and Beatrice face challenges, be it crossing a bridge or staying overnight in an isolated monastery. They also take on traveling companions — Wistan, a tall Saxon warrior; Edward, an outcast orphan who carries the scar of a creature’s bite; and ancient Sir Gawain, nephew of Arthur, clad in rusted armor and riding an aged, swaybacked steed. Both Wistan and Sir Gawain guard secrets from the past and are concerned with the whereabouts of Quering. A showdown is inevitable.
Ishiguro adopts a mannered, controlled narrative style to suit his subject, but the first part of the book is slowed by tedious, repetitive dialogue as the characters search their memories. Both Wistan and Sir Gawain find Axl’s face familiar from a distant past. Beatrice frets about the future and the ferryman. Too often, explication substitutes for drama, the action happening offstage, as when Wistan escapes from a burning tower that traps the sword-wielding soldiers intent on his death. Ishiguro describes an attack by the grasping pixies in the same even tone as he depicts a grass-munching goat tethered on a hillside as dragon bait. Symbols abound, drawn from history and legend, and allegory is implicit.
Still, the writing can be exquisite. Sir Gawain’s wistful reveries echo with yearning. Taken as a whole, the story is artful, and the ending, although expected, still devastates.
The Buried Giant may be a departure in genre for Ishiguro, but the themes of memory, identity, guilt and forgiveness are familiar from such past works as Never Let Me Go, The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans. For what are we if not our memories, our stories?