I hadn’t read any of Kazuo Ishiguro’s books, or even heard of the man, before reading “The Buried Giant”. He’s one of the many literary authors who get a lot of attention from critics but not so much from the general public. But “The Buried Giant” may surprise readers used to the conventions of literary fiction, because in terms of its setting and plot it is much more like a fantasy novel. The story of “The Buried Giant” takes place in sub-Roman England, not long after the time of King Arthur. The knight Gawain is one of the central characters. In the story’s universe, magic exists and ogres and pixies are real creatures. One of the other central characters is even on a quest to slay a dragon. When it’s described in these terms it almost seems like Ishiguro was intentionally trying to come up with the most stereotypical sword-and-sorcery fantasy plot. Naturally, some critics have been a bit put off by this. But if you like this kind of thing, it might attract you to the book. It’s probably what made me decide to read the book in the first place.1
There is more to the plot than the especially stereotypical fantasy elements I listed above. In fact, the story’s main plotline is perhaps more the sort of thing that will interest fans of literary function. It follows an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, who are on a journey to meet their son who lives in another village. Since this is 1,500 years ago we’re talking about here, this is not quite as routine an occurence as it may sound, and it is made all the more interesting by the fact that they don’t actually remember anything about their son. They have even forgotten his name. In fact, they, along with, it appears, everyone else in the village, are suffering from a collective amnesia. They struggle even to remember events of only a few weeks ago. Memories do come back now and then, but only in fragments, and at unpredictable times. The two don’t remember how they met each other, for example. Indeed, although they still feel a strong bond of love between them, that love now lacks a past, and exists only in the present; how, then, can they be sure that it will last, or if it has any real existence at all? And, worryingly, the occasional fragments of memories of their time spent together that come back do not always seem like happy ones.
The realisation of the existence of this collective amnesia, referred to as “the mist” by the couple, is what compels Axl and Beatrice to set off on their journey, in case their memory of their son disappears entirely. But their journey also has a dual purpose, because they are also interested to know what the cause of “the mist” is, and whether it can be stopped—although they are somewhat apprehensive about whether their newly-recollected memories might put their relationship in danger.
So there’s a kind of personal, perhaps relatable story at the heart of “The Buried Giant”. There’s also another story which intertwines with this one, which is of a very different nature: this one is about people as collectives, rather than individuals; about the destinies of nations and the making of history. The more typical epic fantasy stuff, in other words. Not long after they begin their journey, Axl and Beatrice end up joining up with two Saxons, whose names are Wistan and Edwin. Axl and Beatrice are Celtic-speaking Britons, which are the dominant people in the region in which the events of the book take place; Wistan and Edwin speak Axl and Beatrice’s language with them, not the other way around. Of course, all that is set to change. I won’t go into any more detail than this, because I don’t want to spoil the twists in this story (there are a few of them).
I do think the first, personal story is the more interesting one. This is clear to me, because there are points in the book where the two stories separate, and at these points, when I was reading about what was happening to Wistan and Edwin, I was impatient to read on and find out what was going to happen next to Axl and Beatrice. Perhaps Ishiguro was able to make the first story more interesting since it’s the kind of story he’s more used to writing. I don’t mean to give the impression, however, that the second story was a complete bore; far from it. In fact, the second story definitely had a more satisfying resolution than the first one. The fact that there is a kind of mystery around Wistan and Edwin, which eventually gets resolved, provides the story with a natural endpoint. But the first story couldn’t be resolved so nicely. Of course, the natural way to end the story would be for us to find out more about Axl and Beatrice’s past and to get some answer as to whether their relationship will survive. But, even though “the mist” does disappear in the end (I hope that’s not too much of a spoiler—I mean, it’s predictable) we still don’t get told very much about their past. And with regards to whether they will stay together, the author does the thing where he ends the book just before it seems like there’s about to be some closure on the question, leaving you on a sort of cliffhanger, albeit not one which will ever be resolved (I mean, I don’t think literary authors generally do sequels). Clearly this was intentional, and the ending is supposed to be unsatisfying, but doesn’t stop me feeling a little bit annoyed with it. I don’t think the book would have suffered for having a more conventional, perhaps more uplifting ending.
One thing critics have complained about is the dialogue. For example, James Woods thinks this is self-evidently bad dialogue:
“Your news overwhelms us, Sir Gawain. … But first tell us of this beast you speak of. What is its nature and does it threaten us even as we stand here?”
Personally, I don’t really have a problem with this. I do agree that the dialogue sounds rather odd and un-modern in places, although it is never difficult to understand. But that’s all part of the fantasy aesthetic. I imagine there are lots of fantasy books where the dialogue is a lot more weird than in this book.
That said, the overall impression you get from critics’ reviews is that this is a decent book, but not close to a great one. And I pretty much agree with this overall impression. “The Buried Giant” is enjoyable, perfectly readable, but not outstanding at anything in particular. Its strong points are its plot and the endearing characters of Axl and Beatrice, and those are probably the aspects of the book that will stick with you. You won’t remember the book for, say, its prose quality, or its capability for intellectual stimulation, quite as much. I think it was worth my time to read this book, and I’ll recommend it to anyone who’s looking for something to read. But I won’t tell anybody they have to make room for this one if there are also lots of other books to read. I do think I might read another of Ishiguro’s books at some point.
- ^ I don’t think I can really call myself a fantasy fan, though, since I have only read one fantasy author. Admittedly, that author is Terry Pratchett, so I have read a lot of fantasy books, but they’re not very central examples of fantasy books.