There are times when one should listen to critics and times when one should ignore them completely. Trouble is, it is hard to know what time is which. In the case of The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, it got lots of mixed reviews and my general impression ended up being don’t bother reading it because it’s a disappointment. This is mainly because critics accused Ishiguro of attempting to write a fantasy novel and failing at it spectacularly. But thank goodness for the internet and regular readers I trust who defied the critics and loved the book. Now I too can say the critics who panned the book are the ones who spectacularly failed and not Ishiguro.
As a reader who loves a good fantasy novel, I can tell you it is a huge mistake to read The Buried Giant as fantasy. Yes, there is talk of ogres. There is also a dragon. And Sir Gawain plays an integral part in the story. However, the story is more of a fairytale but it’s not even that. Rather, I think it is closer to an allegory, not the kind where you can say the X of the story equals A in real life and Y equals B; it’s not an allegory of equivalents that allows one to draw straight lines, Ishiguro is too good of a writer to do something like that.
The story is set in post-Arthurian Britain but not so long after Arthur that people don’t remember him or what happened. Sir Gawain is elderly but not falling to pieces, just slower and a bit weary. He remains fiercely loyal to Arthur who could do no wrong, which blinds him to the reality of the way things are now. The center of the story is Axl and his wife Beatrice, an elderly couple of Britons living in a small village that is kind of like a rabbit warren. There is a mist over everything, a fog that keeps people from remembering the past. Axl and Beatrice have been married for a very long time and are a devoted couple but they cannot recall when or how they met, what their lives were like before they met each other, that sort of thing. Precipitated by a series of events in their village, Axl and Beatrice decide they are going to go visit their son who lives in a village a few day’s journey away. They don’t know the name of the village or even where it is, they don’t even remember why their son lives there, but they believe if they set out in the direction of the village they will eventually find it.
Their journey is eventful and eventually they end up traveling with a Saxon warrior, a Saxon boy who has been mysteriously wounded and exiled from his village, and Sir Gawain. There are secrets and machinations and betrayals. But Axl and Beatrice move throughout as a steady, calm thread held together by their devotion to one another.
Because this is not a fantasy novel there is no vivid world building. The details are just enough to provide a vague sense of place and your imagination has to fill in the rest. The focus is not on the world but on the people, nonetheless, we don’t even really know what the people look like. I am unable to conjure up an image of Axl and Beatrice in my mind. But I can tell you how much they love each other and that Axl always calls Beatrice “Princess” and Beatrice usually walks in front and is always calling back, “Are you still there Axl?” I can also tell you that they are terrified that when it comes time to be questioned by the Boatman he will not take them both across to the island to spend eternity together because they cannot recall their past. Without memories of the life you have built together, no matter how devoted you may be day-to-day, how do you prove to the Boatman you love each other?
The novel is about love and memory and forgetting. The mist has made everyone forget the past and because everyone has forgotten the past the animosity between Britons and Saxons has also been forgotten. There have been years of peace and prosperity. But the novel makes us ask whether the price is worth it on both the large and small scale. Is it truly peace when the fighting stops because no one can remember what the war was about? Is it really love when you can’t remember the kindnesses, the disagreements, the betrayals, the forgiveness, the moments of grace of a long life together? The story is simple but it raises so many questions that turn it into something rich and deep.
The details are spare and the language itself is spare as well. In fact the language and style are so plain the book reads somewhat like a grade school primer. I exaggerate, but only so you don’t pick up the book expecting soaring flights of fancy, lush and lyrical prose. The language here is grounded, earthy, strong Anglo-Saxon English, an appropriate choice given the story.
I loved this book in case you haven’t figured it out. A great, well-told, thinking kind of story with a beautiful heart. It’s a story for grown-ups, quiet, lived, not flashy and turbo-charged. It left me feeling satisfied and maybe just a little teary-eyed. Don’t listen to the naysayers on this one. Ishiguro knows what he is about. And if you need a little extra push, and haven’t done so already, be sure to read the great conversation between Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman at The New Statesman.