In medieval Great Britain, a strange mist has fallen over the people inhabiting the warrens and villages scattered throughout the land. A mist that makes people forget entire chunks of their lives; details from distant memories as well as moments from the previous day. Amongst these accursed folk live Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple who have vague recollections of a long-lost son but cannot be bothered to go find him… This is all you get when you begin The Buried Giant.
Yet the story suddenly shifts and it is finally a strange chain of events which leads our heroes to embark on an unlikely quest to find their son across a country haunted by sprites, pixies and ogres. A quest made difficult by the fact that they can hardly remember his face, name or where he lives. Each step along their journey is fraught with dangers and encounters, no matter where they go. And the further they travel into the old lands of King Arthur, the more they realize that the forgetful mist haunts men and women everywhere. Friends and foes fail to recognize each other, lovers no longer remember each other’s names and mothers lose their children to the shadows…
Further along this enchanting story, Axl and Beatrice are joined by a Saxon warrior on a quest of his own, a young orphan shunned by his village and an aging knight who should be retired by now. Their perilous journey will take them across a country they once knew, but no longer recall, where an ancient feud between Britons and Saxons comes back to the light and rumors of a monster sleeping beneath the mountain haunt their dreams. And in the end, one must wonder; what is, truly, the buried giant?
1. Concerning classic fantasy tropes, Ishiguro has managed to take the ô most traditional of the traditional and turn them on their heads. King Arthur and his knights, a quest for something beloved and lost, battles between ancient foes and to top it all off, a foul beast waiting to be slain… How much more classical can fantasy get? Alongside these tropes, we also have an elderly couple as heroes, old legends drawn from various cultures and a cast of characters quite different than most fantasy novels out there.
2. The Buried Giant is a tale so cleverly spun that the reader, who is awaiting a straightforward quest with an evident end-goal, will often be surprised by the turn of events. Axl and Beatrice are unlikely heroes with unlikely allies and this makes for an unlikely story. It is normal to expect such wit and depth from this author (a quick Google search for Kazuo Ishiguro’s Award Shelf should convince the reader), but even so, it is altogether surprising.
3. What makes The Buried Giant stand out, even though it is essentially a traditional and linear fantasy story, is the shroud of mist hanging over Britain. A strange, unknown mist that makes people forget almost everything about their lives, the past memories and the sometimes even the present as it happens. This mist, although evil and hated for what it does to the people, also erases old feuds and desires for vengeance. It is fundamentally neither good nor bad, doling out pain and love indiscriminately. Some forget their loved ones, others forget their sins… Should those bent on dispelling the mist pursue their quest? And should they succeed, what will their memories reveal about them? The concept of countrywide forgetfulness was intriguing and useful to the narration. The reader discovers alongside the heroes long-forgotten memories and finds themself trying to piece together personal stories.
4. This point is greatly related to the first; Ishiguro’s decision to take a fantasy story and make it his own also allowed many liberties with the plot. Taking an elderly couple, a mysterious warrior, a young boy and a retired knight and giving them obstacles to hurdle seems simple. Traditionally, the reader could almost except a damsel in distress, a tower, a mad king, an evil sorceress, etc, etc. In The Buried Giant, most plot points and encounters are twisted with such originality that the reader marvels at the ingenuity each time. A band of soldiers barring a bridge? Surprise! A fortress-monastery atop a mountain filled with God-fearing monks? Not what you think! Underground escapes, river journeys, treks through ogre-infested bogs and a show-down with Querig the beast (no spoilers on what kind of beast Querig actually is). The ways the heroes overcome these obstacles are continuously surprising and refreshing. Battles and stealth, magic and cunning, countless methods are explored by the author to help his heroes in their quest.
5. Two points will be rolled into one here, thanks to Kazuo Ishiguro’s sheer talent. A master wordsmith, the author manages to bewitch the reader with his profound lyricism. Everything about this novel is beautiful. There are no other words to describe the story, the characters, the suffering, the hope, the journey… Death is made elegant and love as painful as it should be. As the mist lifts from the land, ancient sorrows surface again, memories come drifting back to the heroes and the reader lives this relief with them. However, memory comes with a price, and the lyricism deeply rooted in Ishiguro’s prose throughout the novel lead to a pure and satisfying conclusion. The beauty of the work follows through all the way to the ending, an ending of held breaths and dreamlike hope.
1. Despite knowing that The Buried Giant is written (and expertly at that) as a medieval, traditional fantasy, it still comes as a surprise how stilted the dialogue feels. While all of the characters’ thoughts and emotions are profound and realistic, most words spoken out loud are painfully unnatural. Whole pages are dedicated to pointless, repetitive conversations that lead to… absolutely nothing. For example, Axl’s mannerism of calling his wife ‘princess’ at every sentence becomes more frustrating than endearing, taking away from the obvious deeper love between them. There are other examples strewn throughout the novel and certain characters possess speech particularities which grow increasingly distracting as the story progresses…
2. Finally, Ishiguro chose (perhaps deliberately considering the novel revolves around memory or the lack thereof) a quite jarring structure for The Buried Giant. Four main parts are separated into chapters, linear and numbered, which are mostly written in the third-person omniscient with a view on Axl and Beatrice, the main characters. So far, so good. Halfway through, a new perspective and point-of-view is introduced with no warning, no foreshadowing, and almost no purpose. Later on, a character that has been present for a majority of the novel, is suddenly also given a point-of-view in the first-person, and these chapters are titled… None of these style choices truly matter since the writing does not suffer from the abrupt changes, but the constantly shifting structure jolts the reader out of the book for a reason that is either very difficult to comprehend or non-existent. We humbly choose to believe that Kazuo Ishiguro is simply far more intelligent than the average reader and that a conference by him might, hopefully, enlighten us.