The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
I enjoyed it. Others might not. I suppose I could put that title on a lot of my reviews without sacrificing much for accuracy, but I mean it to be suggestive here that The Buried Giant is going to be a bit divisive. It’s a well-crafted book, certainly, and it has as much thematic heft to keep anyone happy, but whether or not it’s an appealing book may be a bit less cut-and-dried.
The story, in brief, is as follows: sometime in early British history, an elderly couple named Axl and Beatrice set out on a quest to find their son. They have a general idea that he left them at some point, but they aren’t sure how long ago that was or what drove the family apart. The land is swathed in what our protagonists call “the mist,” a kind of metaphysical force that fogs the memories of anyone who lives in it to the extent that they might forget events that occurred only days beforehand. Naturally, this little obstacle makes finding their son a somewhat difficult task (as well as giving the reader the firm impression that some other shoe is eventually going to drop on the quaint little odyssey), and along the way Axl and Beatrice become unintentionally embroiled in an adventure involving a young Saxon warrior on a mission, an aging Arthurian knight, and a dragon lurking atop a gloomy peak.
Kazuo Ishiguro is well known for his evocative — if minimalist — prose, and it doesn’t disappoint. He is a commanding author, and contrives to make his turns of phrase compelling to the reader even as they are often admittedly bizarre. I enjoyed the experience and I was never tempted to put the book down, but I did find the styling very difficult to pin down. I almost want to say it was synthesized purely for this novel, as it seems to be such an odd mixture of stilted archaisms and modern literary influences, but as I haven’t read all of Ishiguro’s other work, I can’t say for sure. The style is certainly unique in my experience, however, and Ishiguro mostly employs it in a way that serves his dreamy, surreal tone.
How surreal is that tone? Startlingly so. Perhaps that’s the nature of a land where villagers are perfectly capable of forgetting about a woman they met yesterday, but readers should be warned that the experience of reading this novel is far from your typical fantasy romp, even though Ishiguro begins with a flavor reminiscent of some older fantasists (it put me in mind a little of T.H. White). The story is much more dreamy fable than hard progression of events, to the extent that it almost overplays its hand… but The Buried Giant is in the end so exquisite in its slow melancholies that it succeeds in becoming all the more glorious for veering so close to failure.
This is not to say Ishiguro always hits the mark. The novel noticeably slows down at around 60%, which is a substantial issue given that the pacing was fairly languorous to begin with. Ishiguro is a meticulous author, and each scene certainly has a point, but some of those points are only visible from the far side and others perhaps overcome the plot to an extent. A collection of crisscrossing storylines at a monastery, for instance, feels like Ishiguro was trying to couch a rumination on loyalty and faith in Ye Olde “escape the castle” fantasy adventure, but the escape turns out to be a little too plodding to be a thrill ride and a bit too distracting to be a philosophical meditation (at least for me). Fortunately, the narrative drive gets back into gear fairly quickly, and the end is everything I wanted from the novel, one of those collections of beautifully woven scenes that I expect to stay with me for a while to come.
Some readers have found the dialogue a little tough to love, and I admit it can lean too hard on the twee button at times. The entire book is intentionally stilted, of course, and as I said above, I think that mostly works for the tone and references that Ishiguro is attempting, but there are times when the odd, quasi-antiquated syntax grows to be a bit much, and those times occur with most frequency in the dialogue. I don’t consider it a major concern — nothing really stood out to me as a terrible example — but it’s worth noting as another potential fly in the soup, so to speak. To be fair, I should also observe that the further I got in the book, the more accustomed to the dialogue I became, and it definitely added something to some scenes that would been lacking with more typical language use.
Perhaps what I’ve written so far will make you, the reader, think something along the lines of “oh God, it sounds like the worst kind of self-satisfied literary piffle.” If so, I’m doing the book a severe disservice. I think that this is Ishiguro’s great fairy tale, and that like any fairy tale it is meant to evoke something of the strange and uncanny. The text presents a land apart, not only separated from us by years but also by mindset. The mist is pervasive, and many of the author’s artistic choices, while admittedly unusual, serve to show us something of what this sundered England is like without exactness of memory. The world becomes vaguer, more mythic, filled with archetypes and impressions that lack the cleanly cut edges of most contemporary Fantasy. This is Fantasy (yes, I really believe it is a work of Fantasy foremost) glimpsed through a misted memory and filtered through a kaleidoscope of somber emotion. In that role, it works. Its message is both simple in expression and far-reaching in implications, and it expresses that message with a real weight of emotion. What more can we ask from Fairy, that place where emotion traditionally rules?
The Buried Giant is — in my opinion at least — a very good fairy tale, though I’m sure other readers’ mileage will broadly vary. It’s definitely not a book for everyone, and even I’m not entirely sure in what way I enjoyed it. Still, I did. Is this a novel destined to become a classic of Fantasy? I doubt it, and doubt that was the intention. But at the end of the day The Buried Giant is a well-done, well-considered book, and very much worth a look.
This book certainly is getting mixed reviews, not only by reviewers but among my friends. I was on the fence about it, but I think you’ve tipped me into the Read It category.
Me too. I’ve got the audio.
After your review, Tim, I’ve edged into the “If I see it at the library, I’ll pick it up” category–the other reviews I’ve read have been so firmly positive or very, very negative that I just haven’t been sure what to think!
Yeah, I’d definitely say try it as a library book first. Or, for anyone whose local library doesn’t have it, just try reading the first little chunk in the bookstore. Ishiguro is fairly consistent in what he’s doing, which means that if you like the opening chapter or two, you should be fine. If not… well, it’s not going to get any better, lol.