Review: The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

{D04B7CAE-8E0D-452B-9227-931DB8A993FB}Img400>>Published: March 2015

>>Finally got around to it: August 2015

‘Ah, the mist. A good name for it. Who knows how much truth there is in what we hear, Mistress Beatrice? I suppose I was speaking of the stranger riding through our country last year and sheltered here. He was from the fens, much like our brave visitor tonight, though speaking a dialect often hard to understand. I offered him use of this poor house, as I’ve done you, and we talked on many matters through the evening, among them this mist, as you so aptly call it. Our strange affliction interested him greatly, and he questioned me again and again on the matter. And then he ventured something I dismissed at the time, but have since much pondered. The stranger thought it might be God himself had forgotten much from our pasts, events far distant, events of the same day. And if a thing is not in God’s mind, then what chance of it remaining in those of mortal men?’

Beatrice stared at him. ‘Can such a thing be possible, Ivor? We’re each of us his dear child. Would God really forget what we have done and what’s happened to us?’

‘My question exactly, Mistress Beatrice, and the stranger could offer no answer. But since that time, I’ve found myself thinking more and more of his words. Perhaps it’s as good an explanation as any for what you name the mist. Now forgive me, friends, I must take some rest while I can.’

***

Upon finishing Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, his first novel since 2005’s Never Let Me Go, I found myself pondering the litany of poor-to-“meh” reviews that populated the Internet right around the time of the novel’s release, not to mention that whole kerfuffle over whether or not it’s genre—the author claims it falls squarely to the “lit” side of things. (And while I do see Ishiguro’s point in making that distinction, I really do believe this to be fantasy—it’s just very light fantasy with, given its propensity toward overarching metaphor, a strong, market-friendly literary undercoating.) Pondering because, to be frank, I thoroughly, unexpectedly enjoyed my time with this book. I wouldn’t necessarily say I loved it, but, well, it’s pleasant, all the way through.

That’s it. Pleasant. Non-offensive and elegant in its presentation. This is not a case of a heavyweight literary author deciding to venture into uncharted territory and upend the genre status quo; no, it feels a little like an experiment in tone—as if Ishiguro had been searching for a new venue in which to toy with the ramifications of memory and obfuscation. It just so happened he found said venue in Arthurian times, where following a war between the Britons and the Saxons a strange amnesia-causing mist has descended upon the countryside like an obscuring veil draped over an entire land mass.

The story follows an older couple—Axl and Beatrice—as they decide to depart the small community in which they live, to journey to a neighbouring village to find their son, whom they’ve not seen for years. Though Axl and Beatrice have been together for quite some time, their shared history is full of holes perforated by the aforementioned mist. Along the way, they encounter a Saxon warrior named Wistan and his charge Edwin, a young boy exiled for having been bitten, supposedly, by an ogre. Additionally, they are met by Sir Gawain, an Arthurian knight who, along with his faithful steed Horace, seeks to rid the land of the she-dragon Querig—the beast responsible for the mist clouding the thoughts and minds of all in the land.

There is conflict, however, as Wistan has also been charged with ending the she-dragon’s reign. And both men being so prideful, their shared goal, of which only one of them can complete (for the sake of honour, or something equally pointless and hubristic), causes their brief union to splinter, revealing, in doing so, Sir Gawain’s ulterior motives.

The she-dragon’s breath, however, is merely the device that sets in motion the novel’s more interesting and important narrative—the slow realization that Axl and Beatrice’s past, hidden from them for so long, might not be as they imagined, bringing to the foreground the question of whether or not they are who they think they are, and whether their true selves will stay together once all is revealed.

There’s nothing in any of the above description that screams “new” or “ground-breaking,” and that’s all right. The Buried Giant walks very familiar fantasy territory, but it does so with a light touch that, as I’ve stated, worked quite well to evoke a sense of place—not so much one’s place in the world as among this small group of characters. It effortlessly inserts the reader into Axl and Beatrice’s relationship. Their quest is, on paper, a simple one; however, it’s how and when Ishiguro slowly, deliberately extracts pieces from within the gaps in their memories that provides the narrative with its heft, soft-spoken though it is. To this end, the novel’s final revelation—that of their son’s fate—while not especially surprising, is handled gracefully and forms a tight thematic bow around the entire piece.

Simplicity of detail is this novel’s strength—it plays with fantasy as if the genre is a colour in an overall palette and not a type of paint altogether. As a reader who seldom reads fantasy, I liked the light dipping of the toes into genre conventions without diving right into the deep end of the pool. I can understand why it might have frustrated some, but The Buried Giant certainly worked for me. As stated, this is a tone piece, more than anything else, and to that end it succeeds.