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In 'The Buried Giant,' Exhausted Medieval Travelers 'Can't Go On,' But So 'Go On'


This is FRESH AIR. It's been 10 years since celebrated novelist Kazuo Ishiguro brought out his last novel. But our book critic Maureen Corrigan says Ishiguro's latest, called "The Buried Giant," was worth the wait. Here's her review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: We know, but we don't know. We know that we'll lose those we love, that we're going to die, that the whole solar system will disappear one day. It's that shadowy state of knowing, but mostly living as though we don't know about all these looming terrors that Kazuo Ishiguro captures in his latest novel, "The Buried Giant."

No novelist around today beats Ishiguro when it comes to writing about loss. And almost every time he tackles his signature subject, he does so through the medium of a different genre. His breakthrough book, "The Remains Of The Day," is a straight literary novel in diary form. "When We Were Orphans" is a detective tale also presented through diary entries, and "Never Let Me Go" is a sci-fi story. This time round, Ishiguro serves up a masterful blend of fantasy, Arthurian romance, myth, legend and postmodern absurdity. In "The Buried Giant," an exhausted group of medieval travelers cross a blasted landscape straight out of the plays and novels of Samuel Beckett. They can't go on, but they go on, and so, too, do Ishiguro's readers, through scenes infused with menace and magical beauty and, yes, unendurable loss.

The two main characters here are an elderly couple named Axl and Beatrice. They live in an underground warren of dark rooms dug into a hillside. The candle that they would use to light their sleeping quarters has been taken away from them by their neighbors, maybe because of a fire, maybe just because of their age. It's hard to know for sure because, as our unnamed first-person narrator tells us, in this community, the past was rarely discussed. It had somehow faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes. It simply did not occur to these villagers to think about the past, even the recent one. Axl and Beatrice, though, like the other characters in this dim world, experience flashes of memory. Strange as it may sound, one day Beatrice recalls that she and Axl have a grown son now living in a village only a few days' walk eastward. Old and infirm as they are, Beatrice and Axl set out. Here's our narrator again, describing the perils of such a journey.

(Reading) A traveler of that time would, often as not, find himself in a featureless landscape, the view almost identical whichever way he turned. A row of standing stones on the far horizon, a turn of the stream, the particular rise and fall of a valley - such clues were the only means of charting a course. Straying off course meant exposing oneself more than ever to the risk of assailants, human, animal or supernatural. There were numerous instances of a traveler glancing back to the companion walking behind only to find the latter vanished without trace.

Along their torturous way, Axl and Beatrice encounter pixies and ogres and other wanderers; a boy named Edwin who's been cast out of his village because he's been bitten by a fiend; the elderly knight Gawain, arrayed in rusty armor, astride his weary horse, Horace; and a young warrior, named Wistan, determined to slay the dragon that he believes is responsible for exhaling that mist of forgetfulness over the land. Of course, as is standard in these tales of enchantment, no one and nothing are what, at first, they appear to be.

Axl, Beatrice and their ragtag band of wayfarers take many wrong turns, but Ishiguro never does. If "The Buried Giant" were only a fantasy-adventure tale, it would be well worth reading. But Ishiguro quests after far more profound mysteries here than the location of that dragon. Axl and Beatrice struggle to fight through the mist to hold on to their memories and identities and each other, even as they have to resign themselves, inevitably, to letting go. This is yet another radiant and deeply moving Ishiguro riff on loss and the tragic nature of life. It'd pay at the tribute of saying that as a novel, it's unforgettable. But as Ishiguro sadly tells us, that's only wishful thinking.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the author of the new book "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures." She reviewed "The Buried Giant" by Kazuo Ishiguro. We hope you listen to and support your public radio station, and when you can't listen to FRESH AIR on the radio, check out our podcast which you can get on iTunes or your mobile podcast app. And of course, it's free. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.