Book review: The Buried Giant

WHAT a conundrum. What a bother. What a pickle and a palaver. Frankly, we need to talk about Kazuo.

Book review: The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro

Faber & Faber, €17.99;

ebook, €17.08

Born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954, but raised in England, Kazuo Ishiguro is a graduate of the University of East Anglia’s renowned creative writing course.

He is, not without some justification, one of the most celebrated contemporary fiction writers of the past 30 years, with four Man Booker Prize nominations and one Man Booker win (in 1989, for The Remains Of The Day).

The characters of his refined and dignified novels exhibit the kind of human failings that engender sympathy in the reader; and, more often than not, the novels end with little or no resolution, but rather resignation.

Particularly in The Remains Of The Day and Never Let Me Go (published in 2005), his characters make peace with their past and what they are, discovering that such acceptance eases anxiety and absolves internal conflict.

Those two novels established Ishiguro’s reputation. The first recalled in diary form the life of Stevens, a butler, and his professional/personal relationship with Miss Kenton, a housekeeper. The prevailing theme of The Remains Of The Day is one of lost opportunity, of duty.

Never Let Me Go could not have been more different in content; a speculative fiction set in what could be an alternate 1980s/1990s, it focuses in three parts on a group of people who are not what they seem to be.

Each novel is a masterful exercise in precise, beautifully paced writing, the inevitable end process, perhaps, of an author who, in 1983, was included on the ‘Granta List of Young British Writers’, alongside Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Graham Swift, Pat Barker and Salman Rushdie.

Clear and coherent themes emerge in his writing: one critical study of Ishiguro’s work (written by Barry Lewis, Sunderland University) observes that “notions of identity, and how an individual sustains a sense of self as historical circumstances cast new light on events, is something he returns to time and again. It links to the sense of how memory might be used as a tool to keep your dignity ... ”

Which, after such necessary preamble, brings us to The Buried Giant.

Ishiguro’s first novel in ten years (a short story collection, Nocturnes: Five Stories Of Music And Nightfall, was published in 2009), it is a more pronounced departure for Ishiguro than any of his other works.

You are best advised to leave all admiration of his previous novels aside and to allow yourself to enter into a brand new arrangement with a story that will flip preconceptions.

This isn’t to say, by the way, that it’s a good book, but rather a different one from what you expected.

Following critique from his wife, who deemed the dialogue as “laughable”, Ishiguro’s first draft of The Buried Giant was binned.

“Her judgement or her accusation,” he said in a newspaper interview last year, “wasn’t about particular scenes, but the whole language and the way all the characters spoke to each other. She said that it didn’t need tweaking, but that I needed to start it from scratch … ”

Set in England 1,500 years ago, in or around the sixth century — after the Romans have withdrawn and during the Anglo-Saxon settlements — but bringing in fantastical, mythical elements, such as ogres, witches, knights and dragons, The Buried Giant centres on an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice.

With echoes of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones, and the perplexities of a Franz Kafka novel, they embark on a great adventure.

Their quest is to find their lost son, but how he moved away from them is vague, as is their own memory of him. Indeed, as if via some ancient curse (which is never fully explained), a cloak of amnesia covers the land, and while Ishiguro once again lays out his signature themes of how memory diminishes, how it can be suppressed and skewed, and how some people are simply unable to engage with their past, there remains a somewhat incredible undercurrent that nags at the reader like a toothache.

As the book progresses, it is clear that the author is using fantasy genre tropes to explore important questions about love and (another Ishiguro hallmark) mortality.

While he used speculative fiction themes to much better and convincing effect for Never Let Me Go, the stylistic shift here simply doesn’t ring true. It’s also as clinical as a surgical procedure — skilful, of course, but utterly dispassionate.

Nonetheless, in their stilted, child-like confusion, Axl and Beatrice — who come across as characters from a play co-written by Samuel Beckett and Enid Blyton, with additional dialogue from too many episodes of Robin Hood — continue their journey.

They encounter the Arthurian knight, Sir Gawain (who is a mere shadow of his former, dashing self), are set upon by monsters and monks, join up with a warrior, and become entangled in a plot to kill a dragon.

If there is any saving grace in such a rigmarole of a fantasy tale, it is the tender relationship between the married couple, but, like the fog that hangs over the land, there is something deliberately vague and obtuse about The Buried Giant.

Yes, such a preponderance of literal and figurative fog may be a metaphor for the collective suppression of a horrific event, but the ineffective engineering begs a question: why on earth (or, indeed, Middle Earth) did a writer as brilliant as Kazuo Ishiguro continue with a book he seems to have abandoned hope for less than half way through?

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