Title: The Buried Giant
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: 2015
Genre: literary fiction, fantasy
Rating: 3/5 stars
From the publisher:
In post-Arthurian Britain, the wars that once raged between the Saxons and the Britons have finally ceased. Axl and Beatrice, an elderly British couple, set off to visit their son, whom they haven’t seen in years. And, because a strange mist has caused mass amnesia throughout the land, they can scarcely remember anything about him.
As they are joined on their journey by a Saxon warrior, his orphan charge, and an illustrious knight, Axl and Beatrice slowly begin to remember the dark and troubled past they all share. By turns savage, suspenseful, and intensely moving, The Buried Giant is a luminous meditation on the act of forgetting and the power of memory, an extraordinary tale of love, vengeance, and war.
In an interview with the New York Times ponders: “Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?” I could probably write several ranty posts about genre snobbery in general and my frustrations with this quote in particular, but I’ll spare you.
I bring up this quote because I think it’s indicative of how Ishiguro approaches fantasy in the book: as surface elements, as just another tool to achieve that “luminous meditation on the act of forgetting and the power of memory.” I knew this going in and was prepared for a lot of the things I love in fantasy (e.g. detailed world building, a fast-moving plot, etc.) to be missing. As much as I secretly wanted to this to be “Ishiguro Does Fantasy” (à la Remains of the Dragon (No, I do not have any shame when it comes to bookish puns. I WILL NEVER APOLOGIZE!)), I was ok with all of this. It’s his book, he gets to decide how to use his dragons.
What I wasn’t prepared for was how awkward and distracting some of the fantasy elements felt. He starts off pretty well, actually. For the first 15% or so, he manages the balancing act of doling out information about this world and maintaining an air of mystery pretty well. His introduction of the magical “mist” causing the mass amnesia in Britain is subtle and intriguing. Casual references is made to fantasy elements on the periphery of the world in an often delightful way. I particularly enjoyed the matter-of-fact “In any case, ogres were not so bad provided one did not provoke them.” For the first 50 pages or so, the fantasy elements were really working for me.
But then a few things happened. First, more and more fantasy elements show up. We get a quest, another quest, ogres, a warrior, a dragon, pixies, an unnamed dog-beast-thingy, swordfights, a knight, a magical orphan. For the most part, these felt like distractions and/or page fillers. I was left pondering… why pixies? why an ogre? why a magical orphan? I know this response may largely be my fault, for either being too obtuse or too trained by reading fantasy to expect certain things, but I found myself wishing he had taken a big red pen to most of these elements, cut this down to a novella or long short story, and called it a day.
And then there was the “mist.” As a plot device, I think the “mist” is super effective. As a style device, not quite so much. The mist seems to obscure not just the past but also the present, meaning that the reader cannot trust much of anything that comes from the character most affected by it. This could be (and sometimes is) super interesting, but mostly I was just left confused and lost. The mist also means that the two characters with whom we spend the most time, Axl and Beatrice, have no past. I don’t know if it’s on purpose, but having no past seems to mean that the characters also have no substance. Both feel vaguely like cardboard cut-outs wandering around Britain looking for something they lost. I think we’re meant to care about their relationship, their quest for their son, and their ultimate fate, but I just couldn’t bring myself to care for characters when there’s just so little there.
All my gripes aside, I’m glad I read this book. There is so much good stuff here: great writing, interesting ideas, and a satisfying story. As a reader of both fantasy and literary fiction, it gave me a lot to think about, and the sort of half-formed nature of some of my critiques above reflect the fact that I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about this book. I would definitely recommend to anyone interested in Ishiguro or in the intersection of literary fiction and fantasy.