Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, The Buried Giant, is a mind blowing allegory set in the early part of the dark ages, and as it blurs the lines between fantasy and the vague historical facts we know about that period it manages to put clarity to a number of truths that permeate humanity throughout time immemorial. While it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea with references to the reign of King Arthur, the dread dragon Keurig and the magical influence of Merlin, for those that appreciate a certain element of fantasy fiction you’ll find a book that goes way beyond the confines of the genre.
In all fairness to Ishiguru, the novel is less about a fantasy fiction adventure and more about what the events at that time say about humanity and it’s here that the book excels. It unpicks the build-up to impending invasion and genocide, showing their place in society throughout history and holding them as distant precursor shadows to the events of the Second World War, and other recent instances of such atrocities in Rwanda and Cambodia, to remind us that we may never learn and that the horrors of the past repeat themselves throughout the ages.
Released on hardback, eBook and audio book on the 3rd March 2015, the story centres on an elderly couple called Axl and Beatrice who up sticks from the relative comfort and security of their little village to go and visit their estranged son, just a few days walk away. However, there’s much more to the situation than meets the eye, both in terms of the plot and the themes that it conveys.
Firstly, the entire population of the land is losing its ability to remember their past, which reiterated the importance of memories, but equally the potential need to forget to be able to move on. The cyclical nature of violence and revenge is palpable in many places throughout the story with frightening parallels with atrocities committed in more recent history, and there’s a big question about whether or not it’s better to remember or forget. However, at no point is forgiveness ever really discussed, which seems to indicate that retaliation is more about the presence of the memory and less about humanity’s ability to forgive.
There are many dark deeds and unrest in what the couple encounter on their journey, swirling up the mist of death – how we arrive and depart from the land – war and atrocity. However, through it all they strive to cling to their peaceful and friendly outlook – providing a voice to the nature of goodness – and hold close their bonds of love, testing the very vestiges of devotion.
Axl and Beatrice meet an array of exceptionally well crafted characters along the way, including Arthur’s nephew, Sir Gawain, who has become old in the wake of the death of his King, clinging to his knigthood with Don Quixote-like purpose. Their party is also punctured by the presence of a Saxon warrior called Wistan, who stalks the land of the Britons on a secret quest at the behest of his own king, taking with him a young Saxon boy, who has become intrinsically linked to their path over the strange, mythical monster filled landscape.
Structurally, the story is pretty linear starting out with the couple’s simple life in the village and tracking their progress through the troll, giant and dragon strewn country years after the departure of the Roman empire. However, as memories float back to them about what they’ve forgotten about their past they reminisce in a confused fug about what they suppose happened before their memories, and the memories of all Britons began to fail them.
One of its defining features is the sheer minimalism that Ishiguro has employed in crafting his brilliant work of fantasy fiction. Stripping out all fat and replacing it with focus, determination and an unwavering dedication to the stark imagined realities of the situation, it makes for a refreshing read that you’ll find yourself drawn into easily and disappointed to have to leave.
The Buried Giant is a fantastic surprise of literary fiction that seems unperturbed by its mythical surroundings and enshrouded past. It takes a little of the magic of J.R.R. Tolkien and David Eddings and makes a serious contender for the 2015 Booker Prize out of it, using the unusual context to make sense of deep themes like memory, war and death. It’s an impressive adaptation of the fantasy fiction genre, which follows in the footsteps of his last novel, Never Let Me Go, which did a similar feat with science fiction.
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant review: 4.8/5