Neil Gaiman’s New York Times review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel is interesting as it becomes more of a discussion on the genre of fantasy. I particularly like how he states that fantasy “is a way of making our metaphors concrete, and it shades into myth in one direction, allegory to another.” For me, this statement beautifully sums up Ishiguro’s latest work. When it was first released, The Buried Giant stirred a fair amount of controversy, particularly from science fiction and fantasy stalwart Ursula K. Le Guin, who accused Ishiguro of being a genre snob for refusing to categorize his novel as fantasy. Since then, she has retracted this statement. It did open up a fair amount of debate on the topic. While it is true that The Buried Giant contains ogres, dragons, and other staples of the fantasy world, I would not classify this novel as pure fantasy. These creatures merely serve as a backdrop to tell a very human story on memory and forgetting.
The story is set in a post-Arthurian England where Britons and Saxons live side by side. The protagonists of the story are Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple who living in a communal village. After a mysterious encounter with a Saxon woman, the couple is persuaded to go visit their adult son, who they refer to as an important man in his village. The journey to see their son is fraught with perils. Also, there is a mysterious fog that covers the land that appears to be affecting everyone’s memories. In fact, often Axl and Beatrice question if they even have a son.
Ishiguro is one of my favorite writers, and this is the third novel from him that I have read. Remains of the Day is a classic, and Never Let Me Know is in my personal top ten of all time. Does The Buried Giant measure up? For me, not quite. It is a great novel, and it does have my favorite setting in the world of fantasy. It just doesn’t quite hit the same high note that the previous reads did. The writing is consistent with Ishiguro’s typical straight-forward style, and I was able to finish it in a very short time. The characters are memorable as there is your classic warrior as well as a quixotic knight named Sir Gawain (yes that Sir Gawain of King Arthur fame). I also applaud Ishiguro for choosing an elderly couple as the main characters for this is very different from typical fantasy.
There are clues throughout the novel, but I never quite worked out what was occurring until the end. The interactions are fun with a sense of dread that builds as Axl and Beatrice slowly reach their journey’s end. This is definitely one to check out, but if you want to read Ishiguro at his best, give those other two novels a try first.
“But then again I wonder if what we feel in our hearts today isn’t like these raindrops still falling on us from the soaked leaves above, even though the sky itself long stopped raining. I’m wondering if without our memories, there’s nothing for it but for our love to fade and die.”