The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Release Date: January 5, 2016
Synopsis: “In post-Arthurian Britain, the wars that once raged between the Saxons and the Britons have finally ceased. Axl and Beatrice, an elderly British couple, set off to visit their son, whom they haven’t seen in years. And, because a strange mist has caused mass amnesia throughout the land, they can scarcely remember anything about him.
As they are joined on their journey by a Saxon warrior, his orphan charge, and an illustrious knight, Axl and Beatrice slowly begin to remember the dark and troubled past they all share. By turns savage, suspenseful, and intensely moving, The Buried Giant is a luminous meditation on the act of forgetting and the power of memory, an extraordinary tale of love, vengeance, and war.”
Review: As a caution, some very minor spoilers do follow, but I tried not to go too in-depth with anything.
Another note, this review will probably end up being circular and repetitive, but that’s kind of the exact style the novel evokes. It is extremely circular in many ways, always returning to various ideas, using repetition (that could be seen as boring, but I don’t completely agree), etc., all to keep coming back to the main themes of the novel as a whole. And that’s just one of the many beautiful qualities the novel has.
The Buried Giant is, on the surface, a story about an elderly couple in Post-Arthurian Britain, who decide to leave their village to go on a journey to reconnect with their son. All the way, there’s the looming threat of “the mist”—something making people prone to forgetting and their memory hazy—and ogres, solidly placing it in the fantasy genre.
In these and many other ways, it’s kind of your typical adventure fantasy. It’s Tolkien’s Fellowship of 2 (though the couple meets more along the way, as is also often the case), it’s one of many different side stories in ASoIaF, it’s the group in Jordan’s Wheel of Time. They set out from their normal, happy life, and go on a journey—meeting others on the way.
But Ishiguro twists all of these conventions in interesting ways, something he’s known for doing, as he did with the Detective Novel in When We Were Orphans, the Science Fiction Novel in Never Let Me Go. And now he brings his incredible voice to the Fantasy Novel.
It’s interesting, because when I first read NLMG, I actually wasn’t the biggest fan of it, and thinking back, I’m not sure why (as one of the things I do remember is liking the writing style). I have a feeling my perception will be different once I read it again, and I’m definitely looking forward to picking up all of his other novels, too.
Which should say something about this book. NLMG wasn’t my favorite book, and that’s the only other book I’ve read by him. But Buried Giant so profoundly struck me that I’m confident enough to buy all of his books, as even if I don’t enjoy them, I can’t wait to experience them and to see what he does in different genres and stories.
But back to Buried Giant itself, Ishiguro really creates an amazing fantasy epic with his masterful literary abilities. It’s not overly fantastical, filled to the brim with wizards and magical happenstances, but it does contain ogres, a dragon, and a looming threat that is certainly within the realm of fantasy: “the mist.” And being the huge fantasy fan that I am, I really appreciated those qualities.
The mist is an interesting concept, and is in many ways the background threat of the whole novel (even though ogres are often the physical threat)—the threat of not being able to remember, of the possibility of forgetting one’s loved ones.
The mist, coupled with Ishiguro’s extremely literary writing style, creates a very fairy tale-like read, one that I personally was a huge fan of. It’s probably the most divisive aspect of it, because it’s really and truly a commitment. It’s probably the slowest I’ve read a book in a long time, not necessarily in the actual period of time it took me to read it, but how slow my “pages-per-minute” was. I read it slowly, focusing on each and every word, re-reading often.
Because it’s a novel that needs that. It demands time and commitment—but it’s rewarding.
The overall feeling of the novel I’d hesitantly relate to a Neil Gaiman novel (especially American Gods or Neverwhere), as there is the deep-rooted fairy tale quality to it, that I personally loved, but is also denser even than Gaiman’s densest (which isn’t a negative at all—my favorite book, Lord of the Rings, is very dense, as is ASoIaF, and many other great works). But I do think Gaiman is so appealing and effective because he picks the perfect amount of description, the perfect pacing. His work is not slow or fast, but simply mesmerizing, all the while having the backdrop of a fairy tale.
Buried Giant while containing a similar backdrop, is definitely much more slow and drawn out, but purposely so. There’s also occasionally some circular writing that seems slightly superfluous, but personally I thought these slower moments didn’t distract from the novel all that much (for the most part—more on that later). Yes, Axl constantly speaks to Beatrice by saying “princess”, yes there’s stilted dialogue, yes the memory loss can be a bit annoying at the constant repetition, but again, I personally actually didn’t mind any of that, and in fact enjoyed it in many cases, as it lent to the whole experience. To reiterate: It’s a novel that requires dedication, and is a slow read, but a rewarding one. In fact, even parts that I thought were slow while reading it, looking back I appreciate them more, and I’m actually glad they were included—but more on that later.
To move on to the characters, Axl and Beatrice are fascinating characters in their own right, but still, another book and a half after I’ve read Buried Giant, I’m still not sure how I feel about them. On one hand they’re definitely an incredibly beautiful couple who obviously love each other and care deeply for each other, but on the other hand there are also challenges to that. The time period, for one, is written seemingly “accurately”, so there are some sexist undertones often framing their relationship. Because of this, it’s hard for me to actually like their relationship at times. Yes, it’s beautiful, but it is also antiquated. Though I suppose that is, in a way, another strength of Ishiguro, in that he stays true to the pseudo-historic time the novel takes place.
And in many ways the novel itself is a story about true love. Some might say he runs it into the ground, but Ishiguro keeps coming back to their love, and I don’t think he does so in a negative way. But he also does it in a way that furthers the purpose of the novel, bringing in another mystery and another question for the reader to have, to wonder whether or not their love is true. Like many other things in the novel, Ishiguro gives an answer in the story, but at the same time doesn’t ever fully answer the question.
There are also revelations throughout the novel that further complicate their relationship. On one hand, again their love is played out and shown to be absolute, yet for seemingly every time that happens, Ishiguro twists that idea, again causing further questioning.
After finishing it, I’m still not sure how I think. I’m still questioning that and other things, still piecing through the twists Ishiguro gives (and I don’t even really mean plot twists…there aren’t really any classic “big twists” or anything, but twists in the sense of what Ishiguro does throughout the entire novel, how he twists each and every idea).
All of which just sort of circles back to the central theme of the novel, about questioning reality and one’s own memory.
The book is entirely unreliable. Not only the main characters, in that they’re suffering through memory loss, but also the structure and workings of the book as a whole. Characters act differently than expected, Axl and Beatrice go through memory loss again and again, themes continually get revisited—I probably sound like I’m repeating myself, but that’s exactly how the book works: it continually twists and comes back to memory loss and questioning.
There’s also the first person narration that happens from time to time. As a slight spoiler: the character of the narrator does, at one point, get revealed in a way. As I was reading, I was completely on board and thought it was awesome. However, then the questions started creeping up: who is he or she really? How is s/he the narrator? And as I kept reading, the question of if s/he was the actual narrator became more and more imposed, creating another layer of mystery and even twisting the twist.
Which is just exemplary of the novel as a whole: even a “reveal” simply complicates things and creates another, even more interesting mystery—the book’s narrator is the epitome of an unreliable narrator. Everything is entirely unreliable, from the narrator(s), the characters, the plot points, the “historic” period, the reader her or himself….
In many ways it reminds of Philip K. Dick’s writing, and about how he so often wrote about questioning reality and questioning what we as a human species actually know. In the same way, Ishiguro forces the reader to question the reality of the novel, not even really allowing resolution, and at the least having a very ambiguous ending. Many of the questions stay unanswered, yet at the same time, was still (at least to me) somewhat satisfying. It both was and wasn’t, to be honest, and it creates a feeling of alienation, wherein Ishiguro alienates not only the characters, but in some ways, alienates the reader as well.
Which, I suppose is as good a time as any to mention the things I didn’t love as much about the novel. Like I said before, there were some moments when characters seemed to not act like themselves, and the biggest one for me was with Gawain, a knight Axl and Beatrice meet on their journey. I won’t go into detail so as to not spoil it, but there were a few weird moments with him. Even though his actions were, in a way, explained, it still just didn’t seem to fit with what we were presented previously. There were also some weird conversations that Axl and Beatrice had with him, and while the oddness could be explained via “the mist”, they were still jarring.
And on that note, the memory loss itself occasionally did get slightly more annoying at times, as it was very repetitious. But having read the entire novel and thought about it for a while, I think it was a good idea to have everything that Ishiguro did, as reflecting back even that slight annoyance added to the experience and allowed the reader to further connect with the characters.
There were also some weird side stories about 60% of the way through the novel, which again served to just slow down the novel even more. It was already a slow read, but at least had a steady pace—these scenes, though, halted the journey of the novel for, at times, seemingly no reason. Again, though, looking back I’m not sure the scenes are really negatives. They did add to the characters, and they also added to simply the circular themes the novel itself had.
The two things that were actually disappointing, even after some time has passed and thinking back on them, are the two main battles of the novel. I won’t say more in lieu of spoilers, but there are two main battles (both involving only two characters each) in the novel and both to me were incredibly unfulfilling, as they were built up so much, yet ended too quickly and in an unfulfilling way. One of them, however, did also lend to the questioning that the novel itself perpetrates, as it forced the reader to question who to root for, who should win, etc. Yet at the same time, the outcome was also completely guessable. I completely expected the ending was how the fight was going to end, and that itself was disappointing. But perhaps that, too, goes toward the larger theme of the novel and the questioning of it and the untrustworthiness of the narrator/the novel as a whole. I’m not sure.
Another scene in particular also really evokes the untrustworthy theme—involving a boatman and an old woman—an extremely fascinating scene where both people are incredibly untrusting and untrustworthy. But it’s not just them—nearly everyone in the novel is untrustworthy of everyone else, especially seen in the various towns Axl and Beatrice are in, as people there are incredibly superstitious and unwilling to think back on the past at all. The narrator isn’t just unreliable. The entire book is unreliable.
And all of it’s fascinating.
All in all, it’s an incredibly beautiful book. The language of it is evocative and beautiful, the descriptions are a pleasure to read (very reminiscent of Tolkien’s own descriptions, and how drawn out they can be but in the best way possible). But it is also a commitment—it’s not a quick read, and not a thrilling read, but it is an exceptional and fantastic one. As Neil Gaiman says on the back cover, it’s a book that will remain in the mind long after reading, refusing to leave and forcing one to turn it over and over—and that’s what important books do.
I loved it.