Title: The Buried Giant
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Genre: Literary Fiction, Fantasy
King Arthur is dead. Ogres roam the land, but the people are accustomed to them. More disturbing is a fog that clouds memories. Axl, an old man who lives a modest life with his wife Beatrice, occasionally has glimmers of people long forgotten: a woman with red hair, a missing child, and his estranged son. When Axl and Beatrice embark on a journey to visit their son, they run into a slew of strange traveling companions: a warrior on a solemn quest, a boy marked by evil, and the last remaining knight of King Arthur’s court. As memories are revealed and the secrets of the past are peeled back, Axl and Beatrice learn of a way to restore what was once forgotten--but at a startling cost.
I bought The Buried Giant because its author, Kazuo Ishiguro, also wrote one of my all-time favorite books, The Remains of the Day. As such, I wanted to wait for the perfect time to read The Buried Giant and slowly savor it. Initially, I was captivated by the simple beauty of the prose and filled with a sense of romance. But lurking under the quests and magic was a startlingly realistic look at the nature of war, hatred, and vengeance. These dark undertones slowly crept up on me and left me shaken and disturbed by the end of the book.
This doesn’t mean that The Buried Giant contains explicit material. It doesn’t. There are no graphic or gory depictions of violence, no sex, and no profanity--nothing that is typically labeled as “shocking.” I think what disturbed me, on a personal level, was the contrast between the high ideals of the characters and the horrific atrocities they were still capable of inflicting. It seemed very… realistic… for a fantasy world.
Right from the beginning, I loved Axl and Beatrice. They’re the kind of old couple we all hope to end up being someday. They speak kindly to each other, they watch each other’s back, they are sensitive to each other’s needs. I loved how simple and personal their initial journey is. They aren’t out to save the world; they just want to see their son. But this little visit gets absorbed into a more traditional quest, with higher stakes.
This is the kind of fantasy I love to read, the kind of fantasy that causes my spirit to soar, that fills me with inspiration. Kind, humble people on a journey that has world-shattering results. Throw in some noble traveling companions, a world I can believe in, some magic and monsters, and I’m good. And for the first half of the book, that’s exactly what The Buried Giant feels like.
When Kazuo Ishiguro writes a chapter, he begins with something that seems ordinary, even mundane. The prose is simple and clear. Characters speak as people tend to do, not with great speeches but with short, often times repetitive phrases. You are lulled into a false sense of security. And then details start to emerge that twists your perspective. Something malignant hides in that ordinary object. The dialogue starts to take on a deeper implication. Something happens that is as startling as it is inevitable. The tension ratchets. Drama unfolds. And when you go back to the beginning of the chapter, you find you can no longer look at it the same way.
That’s, in essence, The Buried Giant. Slowly, I began to realize that this happy little quest was not what it seemed, not through one big twist, but through small, continuous reveals. I still liked the characters, I still rooted for them, but now I felt ambiguous. The feeling of elation gave way to sobering thoughts about the nature of humanity. When is it better to remember and when is it better to forget? There are no clear answers.
I liked Kazuo Ishiguro’s world-building, because it was utterly magical, utterly mundane, and utterly convincing. Monsters exist, and people deal with them as best they can. A fog disturbs their memories, and life goes on. Myth and magic are treated as matter-of-fact. I enjoyed it--with one exception. Most of the magical entities are extremely literal, but a character called the boatman seems metaphorical. Whenever Axl and Beatrice spoke to him, I wasn’t sure if it was really happening or if it was a weird dream state or… both? It muddled my notions of reality.
By the end of the book, I didn’t know what to think. In some ways, the ending was depressing and in some ways it was hopeful. I thought the last scene was preparing to settle everything into a nice, peaceful conclusion and then the last paragraph through me for a loop. What were the implications of Axl’s final action? What did it mean? And why end the book there?
I thought The Buried Giant was beautifully written, I enjoyed reading it, and I’m glad I read it, but honestly, I still can’t decide how I feel about this book. It offered me all the things I love about fantasy, slapped me upside the head with them, rattled me, and made me think. Is it a book that is going to crawl under my skin and live with me for the rest of my days? Or will I forget about it in a matter of days?
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.