Review: ‘The Buried Giant’ by Kazuo Ishiguro

One of my New Year’s resolutions in 2015 was to write more for this blog, but here we are, over halfway through March, and this is my first post of the year, so it’s fair to say that that particular resolution is not going especially well. This is because, unfortunately, most of the new novels I’ve
read so far this year have failed to inspire me sufficiently to share my thoughts about them on here.

For example, I loved the witty and finely observed first half of Emily Woof’s The Lightning Tree but gradually lost interest as the structure and characterisation started to unravel in the second half. Similarly, I was very much looking forward to The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan, a writer whose superb recent work for the LRB has, I think, established him as one of the finest essayists in contemporary literature, and while I thought the chapters about the ageing photographer dealing with the onset of dementia were wonderful, the Afghanistan-set scenes about her soldier grandson felt mannered and maladroit by comparison.
However, I recently had the pleasure of reading the first truly great novel of 2015: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. Though he was born in Japan, Ishiguro has, over the course of his previous six novels (especially his masterpiece, The Remains of the Day), proved himself to be a quintessentially English novelist, indeed one of the greatest English novelists of his generation, with a unique and penetrating perspective on his adopted homeland. So it really ought not to be as much of surprise as it evidently has been to some that for his latest novel he has drawn inspiration from perhaps the greatest of the English myths, that of King Arthur and his court. After all, his novel Never Let Me Go was
essentially a work of science fiction, so this turn to what we might reasonably describe as fantasy literature in The Buried Giant is hardly unprecedented.
Set in a mythologised medieval England in which communities of Saxons and Britons eke out hardscrabble existences and where the threats of ogre attack or enchantment by malevolent sprites are ‘everyday hazards’, The Buried Giant tells the tale of Beatrice and Axl, an elderly couple
who set out on a journey to be reunited with their estranged son and to discover the source of a plague of forgetfulness that seems to be afflicting everyone in their village and, it transpires, further afield as well.
Ishiguro establishes an atmosphere of eldritch and unsettling mystery from the very first page and brilliantly sustains it to the book’s devastating climax and denouement, but it is the tender and beautifully realised relationship between Beatrice and Axl that is the heart and soul of the book.
And though the setting is ancient (indeed, to borrow J. M. Roberts’s phrase, ‘beyond the borders of history but inside those of mythology’) the themes explored in The Buried Giant – primarily the relative virtues and perils of the erasure and recovery of a collective memory – have a contemporary resonance that makes the novel feel modern and necessary. One need only think of Spain’s pacto del olvido; of the politically motivated historical revisionism currently underway in Ishiguro’s native Japan; indeed of the UK’s own highly selective and self-serving national memory of Empire; or any other of a number of historical and contemporary examples to see the relevance and importance of Ishiguro’s ambiguous and strange and deeply moving novel.
Ian
The Buried Giant is published by Faber & Faber and is available from Golden Hare Books now.
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