Book Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Be it known that I read an advanced galley of The Buried Giant and some details may change before publication.  The book will come out on March 3, 2015, from Alfred A Knopf.

Ishiguro is full of surprises.  His novels have become modern classics, inspiring movies and winning awards all over the place.   (How did he write so well from a young girl’s point of view in Never Let Me Go, capturing the competitive nature over favorite teachers and imaginary horses?  Kathy was given a voice I can still hear in my head whenever I remember that death exists, and somehow she is a comfort.  That book just wrecked me, it was so beautiful and the characters felt so real.  Similarly, Ishiguro is responsible for The Remains of the Day, which he apparently wrote in just four weeks.  That book has grown to be synonymous with the risky country-house discretion and Very English Butlers.)

So much of Kazuo Ishiguro’s work embodies some defining trait of British-ness.  The struggle with mortality, personal vs. political sacrifice, the faults of memory, loyalty to a culture that is not so loyal to you… I could go on.  Even his books that aren’t set in the UK seem to focus on concerns of the changing past and the burden of forgetting failures; themes that I always associate with classic English novels.  His subjects and styles change time and time again, and you never know what sort of story you’ll be getting into when you pick up one of his books.  But you can always be sure that wresting your brain out of the book’s captivating language and ambling pace will take a while once you’ve fallen under its spell.

Such is the case with The Buried Giant, Ishiguro’s newest book. The Buried Giant will come out in March and I won’t stop talking about it for some time.  It’s set in Britain during the Dark Ages, when Britons and Saxons lived in small communities scattered across the island, and a day of traveling could bring untold dangers.  The elements, disease, fearful villagers, and highway bandits were very real threats to anyone out in the open back then.  In The Buried Giant, mythical beasts cause trouble just as naturally.  While creatures from fantasy do feature in the book, the unruffled style in which this tale is told never builds the magic up to be terribly show-stopping – or even unusual – to the characters who witness it.  Just part of the scenery, and no more pressing than a powerful need to eat.  Mostly, this is a story about an old couple who want to journey from their community to see their son.  The Arthurian knights, Saxon warriors, cursed dragons, and mystical islands are merely companions and landmarks on their journey.  But, of course, the journey can not be so simple as we may hope for these kindly Britons.

Axl and Beatrice are leaving their village; a sort of warren housing the community within a hill.  The elderly couple used to be respected by their neighbors, but in recent times they’ve met with coldness and odd manners.  The more Axl thinks about the inexplicable change, the surer he grows that they are all forgetting people and events which had been important to them not too long ago.  A “mist” has fallen on the collective memory of Britons and Saxons alike, so soon after peace was finally struck between their two warring races.  Nobody discusses what they will not remember, and recollections come without warning or invitation to Axl and Beatrice throughout their time together.  It was surreal and unnerving to read as one character re-told a shared memory to another who could only trust to believe that it was true.  Unnerving in such a way that made me worry quietly about the book whenever I wasn’t reading it.  What brought about this clouded barrier to recent history?  Were Axl and Beatrice really remembering things, or just telling stories to comfort each other?  Would their devotion be strong enough to guide them half-blindly through a journey, one that so many external forces would attempt to alter to suit grander – and sometimes dangerous – ends?

I could not get enough of this book’s style or story, though it’s hard to pinpoint what was so mesmerizing to me as I read.  There was clearly something missing in my reading life recently, and The Buried Giant filled that gap.  Was I feeling nostalgic for a charming, wandering epic ever since the Hobbit movies failed to capture Tolkien’s original style?  Possibly.  And Ishiguro delivered, though I’m reluctant to compare The Buried Giant to The Hobbit, despite the dragon and folks riding down a river in things that aren’t boats.  It reminds me more of his side-stories: the tales and legends Tolkien wrote that took place in Middle Earth, but were so obviously inspired by Northern epics and British storytelling traditions.  The conversational tone that guides readers into the green and wind-torn lands is familiar and comforting.  Whomever our narrator may be, he understands that we could get lost on our own in the dark ages.  Now and then, a little interjection reminds us of old Britain’s place in the shape of modern life.

“Once inside it, you would not have thought this longhouse so different from the sort of rustic canteen many of you will have experienced in one institution or another.” (quoted from an advanced galley and subject to change)

It’s moments like that which reminded me of good old J.R.R. Tolkien.  Ishiguro, too, can weave a tale that draws from the storytelling traditions of long ago, but holds out a kindly hand to his readers now and then.  It’s the same mixture of wonder and comfort in inhospitable surroundings that makes even unhappy scenes rather a joy to read.  I couldn’t stop reading Never Let Me Go even when my sweater sleeves were sodden with tears, nor was I about to put down The Buried Giant when confusion and fear for the beloved travelers threatened to get the better of me.

Yes, there are ogres, dragons, and nastier creatures here in small doses.  They are not nearly so terrifying as the prospect that Axel and Beatrice might somehow lose one another.  There’s a Saxon warrior on a mission and even Sir Gawain, old after his adventures with Arthur.  Their bravery in protecting two old Britons and one young Saxon boy is admirably knightly, even when their motivations veer towards selfish pride.  Gawain’s one-sided conversations with his horse make him a comical addition at times, but after a while the effects of so much war become clearer and turn him into a more tragic figure.  Violence and suspicion tore the land apart once, and could do so again at any moment, so of course the book has its bloody moments.  Some are almost dreamlike; one unbelievable moment after another, told with unblinking, measured prose.  Other glimpses of brutality are cushioned with that confident, wise language I mentioned earlier.

“The soldier let out a sound such as a bucket makes when, dropped into a well, it first strikes the water; he then fell forward onto the ground.  Sir Gawain muttered a prayer, and Beatrice asked: ‘Is it done now, Axl?’ ” (quoted from the advanced galley and subject to change)

The language here might seem strangely honest and simple at first, especially if – like me – you’ve been reading lots of fast-paced sarcastic writing lately.  But there is great depth below the surface.  There is a so much hidden underneath the mist that pacifies the people in Ishiguro’s early Britain.  As the real quest in The Sleeping Giant is that for memory and purpose, each character – and surely each reader – questions the benefit of forgetfulness, of forging one’s own memories based on remnants of love or hatred that fuel the current moment.  What would the state of Britain be if nothing could be left, untouched, to history?

But of course, we need to know the story.  So we keep reading as they keep walking.

I’m not exactly sure how to recommend The Buried Giant to friends or customers, but I intend to do so the best I can.  Rather than saying that it’s a good choice for anyone who liked Ishiguro’s earlier work, I’ll try to classify it as a restrained and moving quest story for fans of Romantic (capital R) epics and personal journeys.  I loved it in the same manner that I love reading Tolkien on a quiet day, but others might find the early-Medieval setting more reminiscent of Juliette Marillier’s writing, or various re-tellings of Arthurian legend.  This book is certainly not just for history lovers.  It’s a good choice for anyone who appreciates a simply-told story with unexpected layers of fallible humanity, each step leading to riddles even the best swordsman can’t cut through cleanly.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

  1. I’m intrigued by this book! I have to admit I wasn’t crazy about Never Let Me Go. I read it about five years ago, but…um, I don’t know! But this one sounds like it’s more up my alley. Especially since you mention Juliet Marillier:-D

  2. I’ve heard quite a lot about this book recently. The only other book I’ve read by Ishiguro was Never Let Me Go – which I was a bit conflicted about; it had beautiful writing but the sci-fi aspects didn’t really make sense – but this one sounds much more appealing. Happy to hear that Sir Gawain makes an appearance too, even if it was a bit tragic. He always seems to be my favourite knight.

    • I loved Never Let Me Go (meaning it ruined my entire weekend) but I definitely had to remove it from the genre of sci/fi entirely. Reading it as sort of “speculative realism” made the characters and setting the most important aspect, and since they’re what Ishiguro does best, it worked.

      Similarly, I think it’s best to read The Buried Giant as a favorite legend remembered around the fireplace by someone who would be friends with Tolkien and all them, rather than looking to compare it to great examples of the fantasy genre. It’s new-old storytelling, but takes lots of liberties with the style and (particularly) the subjects of legendary times. That said, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

  3. Sarah – I think I had a very similar experience to you reading this: I couldn’t quite say what about it made the book so engaging but it filled a gap in my recent reading that I had barely realised existed. I don’t have a particularly good knowledge of Tolkien, or fantasy generally for that matter, but Ishiguro transcends genre, even when he hops about. Thanks for a brilliantly articulate review of a book that I’m sure a lot of people will be talking about over 2015.

    My review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

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