cover image The Buried Giant

The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro. Knopf, $26.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-307-27103-7

Reviewed by Lydia Millet Ishiguro's new novel is set in Arthurian England%E2%80%94not the mythic land of knights, castles, and pageants most of us are familiar with, but a primitive and rural country likely far closer to historical reality. This is a gray and superstitious place, rather than a battlefield alive with the color and movement of steeds and fluttering banners; it's sparsely inhabited and scarcely advanced. Candles are preciously hoarded, and simple folk cluster together for safety amid vast stretches of untamed and fear-inspiring wilderness.

The grim-textured, circa-sixth-century landscape is also a country haunted by magic, where ogres loom in the dark and steal children, and dragons are hunted by faded warriors like Sir Gawain. But its magic remains in the background, an earthy fact of life rather than a dazzle of sparkling make believe. Here British peasants eke out a hardscrabble existence from caves dug into hillsides, while the recent Saxon invaders live in more-advanced villages of rudimentary huts. A strange fog hovers over the dreary countryside%E2%80%94where an uneasy peace has balanced on a knife edge since the end of the most recent wars%E2%80%94robbing the populace of its memories. Into this countryside our protagonists%E2%80%94an elderly, ailing British couple named Axl and Beatrice%E2%80%94embark on a pilgrimage to the village of their half-forgotten son.

It's a sad, elegiac story, one that has a tone and texture suited to its subject matter: a dreamy journey, repetitive and searching as lost memory. Conversations are formal and stilted, but their carefully crafted formality lends an austere rigor to the proceedings%E2%80%94Axl and Beatrice are following a gentle old-people's quest, not a dashing young knight's. Although they do cover literal ground and encounter figures of myth and legend along the way, their real search is clearly interior, a painstaking effort to know themselves and each other by piecing together the vestiges of their past.

Memory is inseparable from personhood, in Beatrice's view, and personhood must be known for love to be authentic. Though she and Axl seem devoted to each other ("Princess," he calls her insistently, though she's manifestly anything but), she believes that their devotion, in the absence of memory, may prove insufficient to keep them together when they die. Her guiding fear is that the couple will be separated in the afterlife%E2%80%94on the "island," as the world of the dead is represented here%E2%80%94if they can't show the Charon-like boatman tasked with rowing them over that they know each other, and love each other, well enough to be granted the rare privilege of crossing that last water together rather than alone.

The gift of remembering, as it turns out, will come at a steep price, not for the two aging and kindhearted Britons but for their country.

The Buried Giant is a slow, patient novel, decidedly unshowy but deliberate and precise%E2%80%94easy to read but difficult to forget. (Mar.)

Lydia Millet's most recent novel is Mermaids in Paradise.