The giant buried in this novel may well be Kazuo Ishiguro. Ishiguro is a brilliant writer whose "The Remains of the Day" is a popular and critical favorite and whose monumental "The Unconsoled" is perhaps the signature work of fiction of the 20th century. "The Buried Giant" is his first novel in a decade and like his other works is unlike his other works, although a number of tortuous passages through confusing places are reminiscent of "The Unconsoled."
But the story, the journey of a confused old couple, Axl and Beatrice, through the mostly bleak and occasionally magical landscape of a post-Arthurian England (the knight Gawain, Arthur's nephew, is a character, and the question "What would Arthur do?" actually comes up), strangely enough has more than a bit of Godot about it, if Beckett had put his antic pair into the landscape of King Lear.
It isn't such a stretch. The story of Lear first came up in Geoffrey of Monmouth's "History of the Kings of England," which owes more to legend and fantasy than to fact, and in Ishiguro's tale the routing of the Britons by the Saxons, a backdrop, features pixies, ogres and she-dragons. The she-dragon Querig — whom Gawain is set upon protecting and whom the warrior Wistan is determined to kill — has spread a mist over the land that causes memory to fade. And this, the workings of memory, is Ishiguro's real subject here.
A major theme, he has said in an interview, is "societal memory," how communities and nations remember and forget, collectively building narratives, often, though not always, to bury unpalatable truths.
The unpalatable truth, for the people among whom Axl and Beatrice live, is one of war and intolerance, of the savagery of Britons against Saxons, who will ultimately prevail. But Axl and Beatrice also have forgotten the harm they've done to each other and to their marriage, and a fear haunts both of them that the lifting of the mist will allow them to remember and mar their devotion. This devotion is the thread winding through the story, as Axl and Beatrice, mistreated in their village, set off to find their son. Only as they travel on do they, and we, realize that their son may have disappeared in an unhappy episode they've happily forgotten.
Throughout the story an island is spoken of as a place of rest — and, we come to understand, death. A strange old woman Axl and Beatrice encounter describes her experience with a trickster boatman, who questions couples separately about their happiest memories, thus determining whether they deserve to be together on the island to which he ferries his charges. "How will you and your husband prove your love for each other when you can't remember the past you've shared?" the woman asks. This frightens Beatrice, but Axl reassures her: "The feeling in my heart for you will be there just the same, no matter what I remember or forget."
Whether this is enough is what Ishiguro asks us to consider, even as he suggests — using the savage history of England as example — that the same principle operates for civilization, as only the forgetting of past wrongs allows for a peaceful coexistence. The progress is slow, however, and the journey is one whose pleasures and perils are not for the faint of heart or the easily distracted.
Ellen Akins lives in Wisconsin and teaches in the MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. On Twitter: @EllenAkins.