Goodreads: The Buried Giant
Published: March 3, 2015
“You’ve long set your heart against it, Axl, I know. But it’s time now to think on it anew. There’s a journey we must go on, and no more delay…”
The Buried Giant begins as a couple set off across a troubled land of mist and rain in the hope of finding a son they have not seen in years.
Sometimes savage, often intensely moving, Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in nearly a decade is about lost memories, love, revenge, and war.
I’ve read The Buried Giant twice now, and enjoyed it both times, but it’s taken me a while to sit down and write a review for it. It’s a unique book, and though I know I like it, my thoughts are still a bit muddled–yet perhaps that’s part of the point.
The book follows an elderly Anglo-Saxon couple, Beatrice and Axl–who are setting out on a long-postponed journey to visit their son. The problem? There’s a “fog” surrounding them and apparently the entire country; they find it hard to remember things, important things about themselves, their family, or the history of Britain itself. The book is complicated because it intertwines the personal and the national. It about both Axl and Beatrice AND the entire British identity. As Axl and Beatrice travel, they meet a variety of people, including Sir Gawain, who raise questions about King Arthur and war and what horrors Britain experience or may experience in the future. The novel is about individual memory (and a friend of mine nicely noted that this is in large part a novel about dementia), but it is also about national memory. And these things do not always cleanly intersect into a coherent whole.
On top of this, the novel is also about love. That’s partially connected to the personal memories of Axl and Beatrice, and there are questions about whether remembering or not remembering things can influence your love. (Can you prove or know you really love someone if you cannot remember your whole life together with them?) And while this is fascinating, it often seems to be like it’s own separate theme and thread in the story.
Yet I like the book in spite of (because of?) this murkiness. It’s unusual, unique. First, books about elderly people are not entirely common. Second, books imagining the Anglo-Saxon period in Britain are not common. Third, the Anglo-Saxon books that do exist focus on knights and royalty and those sorts of people. While Beatrice and Axl meet knights, they themselves are perfectly ordinary peasants. It’s interesting.
I haven’t read anything else by Ishiguro, but other people I’ve talked to have said that his writing style in The Buried Giant is similar to his other writing. I personally don’t think the book sounds “old” or that he was necessarily trying to make it sound old. He avoids anachronism (and I’ve had it pointed out to me that this is in itself difficult, which I concede), but the voice seems like a generic modern one to me, unobtrusive. So if you like reading about older time periods but can’t deal with people walking around yelling, “Hark!” and “What aileth thee, goodman?” then this is a good choice for you.
I’m not about to prance off and read another Ishiguro book because what really drew me to this one was the setting and the plot. However, I do highly recommend The Buried Giant for a thoughtful story and imaginative book.
Note: You may have heard of the minor controversy around the book’s release when Ishiguro made a statement that many fantasy fans and authors (notably Ursual K. Le Guin) interpreted as a dig at fantasy. After reading the book twice, I don’t think Ishiguro was actually trying to insult fantasy or to claim his book is not fantasy because he looks down on the genre (i.e. He wasn’t saying “Fantasy is garbage and my book is not garbage; therefore, I refuse to call it fantasy”). I think he was actually just trying to grapple with a generic characterization of a book that has fantasy elements but also feels like history, memoir, magic realism, etc.