I’m feeling very up-to-date writing this book review, because Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel The Buried Giant was only released last month. I was actually lucky enough to go and see Ishiguro talk about the book as part of the Bath Literary Festival (and after sitting in absolute awe in the second row, I was able to go and get my copy signed). It was really interesting to hear him speak about his motivation and inspiration for writing this particular book, and about his apparent movement into “fantasy”.
One of the things I so love about Kazou Ishiguro’s novels is that every one is so completely different from the last – and The Buried Giant is no exception. It takes us back to a mythical British Middle Ages, shortly after the death of King Arthur. Britons and Saxons divide the land between then, and ogres, pixies and dragons still roam the earth. We follow Beatrice and Axl, an elderly couple on a quest to find their half-forgotten son. They soon find themselves caught up in the larger tension between the Britons and the Saxons, and in trying to solve and disperse the odd mist that has fallen over their land, making everybody forget the past.
I wouldn’t call The Buried Giant a fantasy novel so much as perhaps a fable, a fairy tale with deeper currents running through it. It has a strange quality to it, a detached storytelling tone that makes the whole book feel like a parable. The characters didn’t feel quite human to me, but more representations of human characteristics, and I kept having to remind myself while reading that that was supposed to be the case. However I do think it works. The dialogue doesn’t read like real people speaking, but it adds to the fable feel. What the narrative distance may lose in empathy, we perhaps gain in reflection. Besides, even if the characters seem strangely fairy tale like, we do see sparks of humanity in them, especially in the relationship between Axl and Beatrice, which I thought was touchingly and beautifully dealt with. Although it took a little while to get used to, I really enjoyed the parable style narration, and for me the chapters in first person seem a little out of place. One of the things I really love about this novel is the almost omniscient storyteller whose voice dips in and out of the story, and the way it makes us wonder just who this fable is being told to.
It’s perhaps because of this parable-like tone that the ending disappointed me. The novel is set up as a fable, and fables feel like they need morals, messages, or certainly some kind of conclusion. Perhaps the very point of this novel is that it doesn’t have a simple moral message, that life is never as clear cut as fables – and yet for me it just feels like the book stops ten pages too soon. I was left a little bewildered and a little underwhelmed. With Axl and Beatrice’s plotline there doesn’t seem to be real closure, and with Edwin and the warrior’s, I felt like certain things were set up that came to nothing. For me the ending of The Buried Giant didn’t quite the same poignancy that Ishiguro’s other works have had.
But I know I have to be careful when reading the latest books of authors I love. I’m often in danger of judging them too harshly. It’s very hard for me to not pick up an Ishiguro novel with massively great expectations, simply because I know him to be a very talented writer, and because I so enjoy his books. Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go are two of my favourite novels ever, and I kept having to remind myself as I was reading The Buried Giant to judge it simply as a novel rather than an Ishiguro novel. I often have this problem; I had it when I read Diane Setterfield’s second novel Bellman & Black, because her first (The Thirteenth Tale) is my absolute favourite modern novel. I had to keep reminding myself as I was reading The Buried Giant not to let my high expectations get in the way – because ultimately I do really like this novel, even if for me it doesn’t quite compare to his others.
What I especially found intriguing about The Buried Giant is how it deals with memory. Memory seems to be one of Ishiguro’s favourite themes throughout all his novels, and it’s certainly one of my favourite themes to read about. I love how this book deals not with individual memory but collective memory. Burying the giant of the past effects not only Axl and Beatrice’s relationship but the whole dynamic of the kingdom. The novel explores how the choice to forget atrocities, mistakes and injuries, both on a domestic and a national scale, can alter perceptions and relationships. This novel is not so much about the elusiveness and unreliability of memory, but more about the dangers of what might happen when you do remember accurately. It’s a fascinating and pertinent premise and Ishiguro explores it well.
So I heartily recommend The Buried Giant, partly because it’s an intriguing book that I almost think everybody will interpret differently. As always with Ishiguro the writing is excellent and impressively controlled, the themes deftly explored and the setting weird in the most enjoyable of ways. I always like the worlds Ishiguro creates, because they seem half familiar and half alien. It’s a curious, strange and in many ways brilliant novel.
Greatest strength: Its main theme of memory, and the fable-like tone.
Greatest weakness: For me the ending was a little disappointing.
Let’s finish on a quote: ‘In this community, the past was rarely discussed... it had somehow faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes.’
Next week: Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie