Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (Amazon affiliate link) is a book that I enjoyed quite a bit, though it’s definitely less accessible than some of his other work.
Set in post-Arthurian Britain, it has fantasy trappings that support a great literary story.
The story follows a man and his wife as they travel to see their son. I could draw comparisons to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and also to classic Arthurian stories simultaneously; it’s a fusion of modern narrative trappings with the worldview and storytelling style of ancients.
Along the path, the couple meets a variety of interesting characters. Most of the characters have an almost mythological role in story, and even those who are recycled from Arthurian legend have a very different presence in The Buried Giant, where they are turned into new and complex figures.
As a study in storytelling, The Buried Giant is tremendous. It switches between perspectives, develops a deep mythos that its characters explore, and plays with and subverts expectations.
If I had one criticism to give, it would be that it is unapproachable to the average reader. I do not know if this is necessarily the case, but it certainly feels like in The Buried Giant there’s a book that wants you to meet it where it stands, instead of coming to you. However, Ishiguro has not won the Nobel Prize for literature without reason. The read may be difficult, but it is difficult because it seeks to challenge the reader. My only other experience with Ishiguro’s work is The Remains of the Day (Amazon affiliate link), which I found really enjoyable. I thought I had written about it, but apparently I have not (or at least I can’t find it, which wouldn’t necessarily be that strange).
The Buried Giant is almost a hundred-and-eighty degree turn from The Remains of the Day. Some common themes are found in both books, especially around memory, and both focus heavily on characters in a deep way, similar to what you would expect from a Tolstoy novel. One major difference is the amount of dialogue. The Remains of the Day is largely introspective and focused on going back into memories, but The Buried Giant has a little more action and deals with the present and the desire to recall the past.
This is where I have seen the most criticism for The Buried Giant. It is written in Arthurian language, or rather, the dialogue and introspectives are, si9nce there are points where the author addresses the reader directly. This is an intentional stylistic choice, and to me feels comfortably like Lewis or Tolkien doing similar things in their works; in fact, I found the opening chapter to be very reminiscent of Tolkien in its storytelling format. However, these stylistic anomalies and the complexity of the text and storyline make it a matter of taste whether someone will like The Buried Giant or not.
My reading was split across two sittings, which is a testament to how compelling the book was, but it was certainly hard to follow and I had to go back and re-read passages a few times.
This is where another connection to Faulkner can be made. The Buried Giant is very much presented as a stream-of-consciousness, and it does a great job of having characters with secrets who are motivated by those Secrets but don’t give away the plot. An unfortunate consequence of this is that it is not particularly exciting in terms of action; many of the events are talked about a lot. There is some drama in looking at how people feel about the various events; Gawain, the knight who accompanies the couple, is particularly interesting for how he views his own role in the universe and how it has changed in his mind from what others would view as objectively true.
In short, if you want the story about adventurers going out and fighting dragons and triumphing over their foes, you would do better with a swords and sorcery novel. There are high stakes, and even directly violent conflicts in the book. However, this is not what Ishiguro chooses to focus on; his protagonists are old and weary, and hardly seek any excitement, though they do manage to find some.
I don’t want to spoil the book, but it has Ishiguro’s trademark style of the ambiguity of memory and asking but never answering philosophical and psychological questions. It’s deep to its core, and I’m still pondering what some of the symbols and events represent. The unremembered histories of the characters, slowly recovered over the course of the novel, are a source of excellent dramatic tension, and also ask questions relevant to modern life.
Let me make it clear: The Buried Giant is not a fantasy novel. If you are interested in it because you’re interested in Arthurian legend, it will be interesting only in the sense that it is a reinterpretation of the stories. The characters are used as a sort of shibboleth, a representation of archetypal forces, not in the more traditional sense. They simply are taken from familiar forms so that we can connect with them more quickly.
I actually believe that this is one of the best parts of the book. The husband of the couple on whom the book focuses, Axl, provides an entirely different viewpoint on the Arthurian legend than you’ll find in modern retellings.
It reminds me in many ways of Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife, which I reviewed some time back.
I can’t necessarily recommend The Buried Giant. I liked it a lot. I would definitely recommend reading it if you want a book that can be studied deeply, and which has incredible meaning when interpreted. However, there’s an uneasiness to it. I believe this was intentional on Ishiguro’s part, a deliberate intention to not make a point, but it’s still frustrating in some ways because one can only guess what it intends to mean.
Stories about forgetting often fail to satisfy because they lack significance. The act of remembering something does not usually make for a great heroic act. Ishiguro was able to overcome this in The Remains of the Day, and he is able to overcome this in The Buried Giant. However, it’s more about the mystery than any active process, and even the greatest central action ties into the desire to remember more so than changing the world than it currently stands.
Perhaps that is Ishiguro’s point.
I heartily recommend it, but only with the caveat that it requires investment. Unlike The Remains of the Day, it’s not an easy read, but I found it just as profound.