The best novels are about great stories, interesting or surprising character development and taking the reader on a journey of discovery. The latest novel by Kazuo Ishiguro is a historical fantasy and as has been said by others, two out of three ain’t bad.
What I have enjoyed previously about Ishiguro’s novels have been the power of his writing to evoke a sense of time and place. Whether he’s in a dystopian horror or a dream-like Eastern European city, the reader feels a part of the novel; understands its place. In The Buried Giant Ishiguro hits those notes perfectly again, despite the tale being told is set in Arthurian times. The main characters are, as the narrator describes, known as Axl and Beatrice. An elderly couple, Britons, living out their days in a village, perhaps somewhere in the south west of England. As with the other villagers, even the younger ones, memories are foggy and motivations are unclear. Even recent events. Ishiguro plays with words and ideas when describing the fuzziness of memory – and indeed with being – with a deft touch. The couple’s relationship is beautifully solid too, despite the difficulties of time. Axl only ever refers to his wife as ‘princess’ and they have very real ups and downs.
One morning, as Axl vaguely recalls a visitor and her conversation with his wife, it is decided they should go to seek out their son, who lives in a distance village. Although they cannot remember why it should be so. And so they set out. This is a journey narrative. A movement of characters from a to b with encounters and trials along the way. They meet a warrior and a boy who it seems has been bitten by an ogre. They meet a mysterious boatman and one of Arthur’s knights. They visit a monastery where nothing is as it appears. They learn of the she-dragon called Querig and why it is so important to not only their lives, but all of England. To reveal more would be to spoil the journey, and its conclusion.
The framing of the story, revealed at its conclusion, is brilliant and as realisation dawned on this reader I felt that the reading journey had been worthwhile. Because to be honest, I’d struggled somewhat in the middle section of this book. While the main characters are interesting, the others, especially the warrior and the boy, weren’t as developed. Some of the events show some imagination (the boatman and the pixies are but two) and wit; proving Ishiguro is as comfortable in this genre as in others. However, the story itself was a bit thin. The book is about memory (the buried giant) and perceptions, along with history and the wars fought in historical England. Trouble still brews between the Britons and the Saxons. There is an element of religion too and implications that the dragon and the memory loss are punishments from God (our heroes are Christians). The concepts are brilliantly woven throughout the book and characters’ interactions. The sense of walking through this country highly evocative. I love the fact that this is a fantasy adventure where the main protagonists are an aging couple with no special powers or, for example, remarkable courage other than the desire to see their son. It is all about the journey and the reveal. However, the actual narrative, from village to village to monastery to dragon’s lair to Axl and Beatrice’s son is a little on the dull side. The dialogue a little on the trite side.
There was significant hype about The Buried Giant with Ishiguro admitting he threw out the first draft and press interest in whether or not he thinks of this as a fantasy. I think for me, the hype and the anticipation are not met by the actual tale told. I am big fan of fairy tales. Usually they are resolved due to human kindness, and contain a sense of mystery and wonder. Ishiguro has attempted to write a fairy tale here, and it does have those elements to it. While there is nothing wrong with the descriptions, the main protagonists and story-telling, the actual tale needed more focus, more texture. Style – a beautifully written and powerfully cleverly constructed idea – over substance.
Original version published here: http://www.nudge-book.com/blog/bookhugger/2015/03/23/the-buried-giant-by-kazuo-ishiguro-2/