The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, book review: This isle is full of monsters

Ishiguro's new novel is filled with fantasy creatures but, says Arifa Akbar, it touches on deeply human concerns

Haruki Murakami, in his forward to a collection of essays on Kazuo Ishiguro's fiction (2009), says that with each new Ishiguro novel, there is a new direction. They have him, with every publication, "running down to the bookstore to buy a copy".

Perhaps all the more so now, after 10 years, with this latest offering. So what do we find in this long-awaited novel? Not what we expected, as Murakami suggests. The first thing to mention about The Buried Giant is that it is a fantasy novel. The second, that it does not have the heart or soul of a fantasy novel, despite its ogres and evil sprites. This is neither a literary Game of Thrones, nor a Lord of the Rings. Its surprise, and perhaps its achievement, is that Ishiguro has brought the same, beguilingly simple realism that infused his Man Booker winning historical novel, Remains of the Day (1989) and the SF dystopia, Never Let Me Go (2005) into this strange new universe. The story sweeps us in not through the imagination of its monsters and magic mists, but by a prose style so distinctive that everything it touches, however airy or potentially Shrek-like, becomes earthly, solid, with an emotional purchase usually reserved for the "real".

Its two elderly protagonists, Beatrice and Axl, are on a quest to a neighbouring village to seek out their long-lost son. The backdrop to their journey is a mythic Old England in which invading Saxons, having fought viciously with Britons, have since settled into an uneasy peace based on collective forgetfulness – an enforced amnesia that manifests, literally, as a mist (spread by the breath of a she-dragon, Querig) and robs the country, and our couple, of their memories of war, peace and love.

Ishiguro teases out the tensions in his gathering party of questing characters on their ancient yellow brick road: the elderly couple, a courageous Saxon warrior, a boy who becomes the warrior's apprentice and, most hammy of all, a geriatric Gawain (the legendary Arthurian knight) who initially appears King Lear-like, in woodland wilderness, with aching limbs and an ancient horse. Gawain, forever locked into his heavy, rusting armour, has the distantly comic air of the Tin Man – "…come closer and you'll see I'm just a whiskery old fool". Though there is pathos in this, it is also an example of a certain archness that occasionally enters the storytelling.

Every journeyman strives for something different: the couple for a past with which they must reconcile; the warrior for justice, whatever this entails; Gawain has the unfinished business of slaying Querig, while the boy simply looks for his mother. There are gaps in our knowledge, and rising suspicions, beyond these stated claims – and Ishiguro wants it so. It is the ellipses around each motive – furtive, half hidden – that push the reader further in. For as long as the narrative revolves around the couple (as it does for a substantial section of the book), we are gripped. The story remains powerful, intimate, suspenseful. When we switch later to the boy, and to Gawain, their voices sound ancillary, slightly generic. We seek to return to the couple because they are The Buried Giant's emotional heart. Their quest is the one that matters most.

In this sense, this novel continues where Never Let Me Go, left off. As vastly different as that was, it too was preoccupied by the extremities of love, and the extent to which it can remain unimpeachable in the most testing of circumstances. The journey's end will lead the couple to cross the water to an island, where they can only dwell together if they have that rarest of bonds: an "abiding love that has endured the years".How will they prove their love for each other to an interrogating boatman if they can't remember their shared past? Increasingly, the couple come to fear both the corrosive power of forgetting their shared past, and remembering its grubbier aspects too. Their memory loss leaves them more innocent in their love for each other. Its history is subtly, masterfully unpicked, from the fog of half-said, half-felt sentiments to the slow dawning in the final chapters. Memory-loss obliterates the bliss of their marital past, but also buries the burden of its "black shadows". The uncomplicated, almost childlike love of their continual present, is changing as memories return, and could change further. Ishiguro's tacit point here might be that forgiveness – true forgiveness – isn't guaranteed, even between two people very much in love. There are several twists in this book, all of them unexpected and impactful. The final shock of the last paragraph is the most subtle, and equivocal, but also the most unnerving.

The unresolved past that has emerged in much of Ishiguro's work does so here, again. The fog of forgetfulness obliterates memories of war and the desire for vengeance, but also retards any healing process. Past horrors are buried rather than faced. Aminatta Forna, whose novels have dwelt on the complicated aftermath of war, has shown the pain of such confrontation – how wives come face to face with their husband's murderers in their villages in postwar Sierra Leone (The Memory of Love); how men sip coffee with their former enemies in contemporary Croatia (The Hired Man). Ishiguro's mist averts this confrontation, and so, strangely, deepens the pain, through its sublimation. "How can old wounds heal while maggots linger so richly? Or a peace hold for ever built on slaughter and magician's trickery?" Ishiguro's characters realise that for reconciliation to take place, the anguish of remembering is vital. Needless to say, this is as applicable to Ishiguro's Old England as it is to postwar Europe, or today's war-ravaged regions.

Querig is the novel's biggest red-herring: feared by all for her formidable powers, she is (a little like Gawain), a pathetic, almost comical sight when the curtain is whipped back. The dragon is, after all, not the monster her mythology cracked her up to be, but a pawn in war's propaganda machine. This twist – of Querig's true nature – shows "evil" to be a human construct, a proxy for the destruction that men themselves perpetuate.

This is a novel that does not answer every question it raises about war, love, memory; but it doesn't have to. It takes us on a journey that is as deep as it is mesmerising, ogres an' all.

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