The Buried Giant is chiefly the tale of an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, who depart from their home in order to find their son in sub-Roman Britain (c. 410-500). As Beatrice remarks in the first chapter: “There’s a journey we must go on” (p. 20), and what a journey it becomes. History, fantasy and relationship are interwoven in a complex, intriguing tale that 600 words doesn’t do justice.
Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer I love. I’ve been hooked ever since I was reverently introduced to his work with Never Let Me Go at GCSEs. From the sad strains of Remains of the Day to the obscure ramblings of The Unconsoled, Ishiguro captures the obscure, the wild and the desperately real like no-one else. I’m delighted to say that this book is no different. The fantastically unique, equally-weighted duo of Axl and Beatrice were particularly refreshing. In an age where novels can treat romance as a cheap side story or a smutty titillation, I thoroughly enjoyed a protagonist couple that aren’t an overblown fanfare but they portray a possible, real, married pair.
Another one of Ishiguro’s merits is introducing you to the story like you’re a passive observer but without having to patronisingly catch you up. Like Dickens’s ghost of Christmas present, leading Scrooge to peer into the home of Bob Cratchit, Ishiguro masterfully guides the viewer’s gaze to the dense scenes unfolding before them.
It often felt as if I was reading a book translated from a foreign language. There is something so detached from a modern novel that almost made me think that The Buried Giant was set centuries into the future, not in the past. The underground dwellings, the opening description of “miles of uncultivated land” (p.3) and the references to warring factions lends itself to a dystopian post-nuclear apocalypse. I eventually settled upon the argument that Ishiguro has, in fact, captured this historical culture in a way I have never encountered before. It was like reading an ancient text: the nuances, references, character traits and values are unique. If fifth century tapestries could talk, this is the kind of tale they would tell.
A minor spoiler ahead: a lot of the book is to do with memory. People are forgetting things, and it’s a little sinister. I initially saw this as a comment on the limited technologies of language. There are multiple references to Saxon and Briton ‘tongue’, as there was no standardised English in sub-Roman Britain. With a divide in spoken language, and so little written language, the events of the past are skewed by memory and hard to grasp or process. However, I have come to think that Ishiguro may have been making a deeper point that memory is often a curse to the present, as we are shown some darker truths that seem best forgotten.
The unsettling backdrop of a hidden past creates a gripping tension. The sweet symphony of Axl and Beatrice’s relationship has a sad motif. Along their journey, the heroic Sir Gawain and Wistan tug and tease the veiled past into the perilous present with great effect. I often found this fractured story-telling gleeful – it made the story into a path of clues and possibilities. However, sometimes it complicated things. This, coupled with the strange creatures and mythology, obscured the reading experience. I’d be cornered into confusing places where I’d have to jump back and forth through chapters to discern the true order and implications of events.
If you don’t like a rounded ending, don’t read Ishiguro. The camera pans out onto an uncertain horizon which I like to think is a clever nod to the fact that the events of history are so often misconstrued and inconclusive.
Verdict – 7.5/10 – Grand
The Buried Giant is a distinct, very well-paced and thoughtful novel which is hard to put down but a little too easy to get lost in.