My Kyrosmagica Review of The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

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Goodreads Synopsis:

An extraordinary new novel from the author of Never Let Me Go and the Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day.

“You’ve long set your heart against it, Axl, I know. But it’s time now to think on it anew. There’s a journey we must go on, and no more delay…”

The Romans have long since departed, and Britain is steadily declining into ruin. But at least the wars that once ravaged the country have ceased. The Buried Giant begins as a couple, Axl and Beatrice, set off across a troubled land of mist and rain in the hope of finding a son they have not seen for years.

They expect to face many hazards – some strange and other – worldly – but they cannot yet foresee how their journey will reveal to them dark and forgotten corners of their love for one another.

Sometimes savage, often intensely moving, Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in a decade is about lost memories, love, revenge and war.

My review: 

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is an ambitious endeavour which combines elements of fantasy with literary and historical fiction. It is a philosophical tale replete with deep insights regarding family love and loyalty, trust, forgiveness, old age and memory loss, marital love, and war. At the heart of this story the premise is this: in a long life our memories will not always be happy ones, free from any hurt, or guilt. All human beings make mistakes and do hurtful things, therefore, is it better to leave these painful memories buried?  But if you do so how will you ever learn from the tragic historical mistakes of the past? Moreover, if you are unable to remember your family, the people you love, the life that you live, then what do you truly have? One only has to consider a victim of Alzheimer’s to understand the devastation that this brings. This gift of remembrance comes with a price, it is a double-edged sword as you will find if you read the book.

The Buried Giant, as its name suggests, is a slow almost laborious read to begin with. In fact I almost felt as if the mist of forgetfulness was engulfing me as I was reading!  Some might find the development of the story line to be too slow for their taste, and may be switched off the book because of it, this is most definitely a novel that will divide opinion. If you like a deeply thoughtful close read, I would recommend this, but prepared for the slow start.  The true meaning of the book’s title, The Buried Giant, remains a mystery hidden in the mists of the story right until it is time to reveal its true meaning.

The time period is mythical old England. The Buried Giant features an elderly Briton couple, Beatrice and Axl, who set of on a journey from the village in which they live, an underground habitat connected, “one to another by underground passages and covered corridors,” to their son’s village to find him. This sounds a simple enough quest but this isn’t just an ordinary reunion, no, Beatrice and Axl can hardly remember what their son looks like, nor can they even remember recent life changing events that have happened to them. In fact the past has now taken on the qualities of a mist: “I mean that it had somehow faded into a mist as dense as which hung over the marshes.” Axl feels the pain of this lack of remembering particularly when it is about their son: “Many things I’ll happily let go to it, but its cruel when we can’t remember a precious thing like that.”

They are joined on their quest like adventure by an injured boy, Master Edwin, and a Saxon Warrior, Master Wistan. The warrior appears to be a man of great character who is able to withstand spells. All four of these characters, Axl, Beatrice, Edwin, and Wistan, are looking for something or someone. Edwin, Axl and Beatrice are all wishing to be reunited with a much-loved but mostly forgotten, family member, in Edwin’s case it is his mother. The warrior Wistan sees a special quality in his protégé Edwin that he feels sure will lead him to the She Dragon Querig :  “I chose you above others, Master Edwin, because I saw you had the hunter’s gift to match your warrior spirit.”

They meet an aged knight, Sir Gawain, the “nephew of the great Arthur,”  and his elderly horse, Horace.  The once mighty Sir Gawain has been given the task of  slaying Querig, but it appears that in his enfeebled state, Sir Gawain has failed in this endeavour and the She dragon still lives.  Sir Gawain continues to defend the honour of Arthur who he believes has brought a lasting peace to Britain.

Sir Gawain reflects on Edwin’s injury:  ‘That’s no ogre’s bite the boy carries.” The Villagers superstitions’ lead them to believe that Edwin will turn into a fiend himself.  The reader begins to wonder is this an ogre’s bite or a dragon’s bite? The young boy’s behaviour becomes stranger the closer that he gets to the She dragon’s lair,  this mimics an earlier episode in the book when Wistan pretends to be an idiot,  this device connects these two characters, suggesting Wistan’s hold over Edwin.

On the quest we are introduced to a rich array of characters in keeping with the fantasy, (magical realism,) element of this story,  to name a few there are:  ogres, monks, sprites, a beast, pixies, a bird like old woman, a she dragon, and the all important boat man, who ferry people to the island of the dead. When we meet the bird like old woman she is clutching a rabbit that she intends to kill.

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**** Some minor spoilers below in italics****

This bird like old woman appears to be taunting a thin unusually tall boatman. But nothing is quite as it seems. At first glance it appears as if the boatman is the victim of this strange woman’s hideous behaviour.  But could it be that the woman has suffered an injustice at the hands of the boatman? The old woman recants a tale of being questioned by the boatman about the bond between her husband and herself. This bond is deemed too weak by the all-knowing boatman. She is tricked and forcibly parted from her husband and offered a rabbit as recompense for her first night of never-ending solitude.  Can you imagine? What a wicked thing! Beatrice is fearful that the loss of memory that she and her husband are currently experiencing will lead to their enforced parting too. She fears that they may let some less than perfect confession slip when answering the boatman’s far-reaching questions about the worthiness of their love.

Later it is suggested that the weary old couple, Axl and Beatrice, will  defeat the she-dragon with a poisoned  goat given to them by abandoned children whose mother has forgotten them. Again, the theme of forgetfulness, and loss permeates the many layers of this novel. This seems ridiculous at this point in the novel, yet it isn’t as far fetched as it seems, as Axl and Beatrice are now as enfeebled as the dragon. 

As for the warrior Wistan, he has been taught by Lord Brennus to hate  Britons. Now Wistan hopes to ensure that his protégé, Edwin, hates Britons too. Later Edwin questions whether this should apply to all Britons, even to their fair-minded companions, Axl and Beatrice. Will the circle of hate continue if Querig is destroyed and the mist is lifted?

Superstition plays an important role in this tale, the She dragon Querig is attributed with having caused the mist. It is suggested that Merlin placed a spell on her breath. Gawain states that,”Without this she-dragon’s breath, would peace ever have come?” But there are others who think that the mist is God’s forgetting, or possibly God’s punishment for man’s evil. When Axl and Beatrice are sheltered by Ivor, Ivor says to Beatrice,”The stranger thought it might be God himself had forgotten much from our pasts, events far distant, events of the same day.”

There is a sense of a past laying below the surface waiting to reappear, like the mist clearing, and little by little Axl begins to recollect days of wars. He recalls the slaughter of women, children and elderly. “A slaughterer of babes.”

When finally the reader is acquainted with the once mighty Querig, one wonders whether this creature is now to be pitied? This once fearsome creature has aged like three of the characters who seek it: Axl, Beatrice, and Sir Gawain. The warrior and Sir Gawain at this point in the novel have utterly opposing views, “Leave this place, sir, I beg you.” Wistan considers that,”what kind of god is it, sir, wishes wrongs to go forgotten and unpunished?” When they fight, their blades lock in what initially appears to be a matched battle, suggesting they both believe in the true justice of their contrasting opinions. The rest you must learn by reading the book.

Ultimately, if the dragon is indeed slayed will the result be peace and happiness for all? What impact will this have on Beatrice and Axl? Will their memories be restored? If  they are, will this bring them joy or pain? Will the Britons and Saxons be divided once again?

The final conclusion is heart breaking, a powerful ending. I waited a long time for this emotionally charged moment, it came right at the end but it was worth the wait. I liked this novel, and appreciated the thought that went into its crafting, but somehow it didn’t quite reach the heady heights of my favourite shelf.  The slow progression of the novel, and some of the slightly irritating habits of the characters dragged it down, Axl’s constant referring to his wife, as his “princess” comes to mind. Yet, The Buried Giant left me thinking….. Yes, it is a deeply thoughtful novel, one to ponder on and consider.

Highly recommended for readers of: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, and Fantasy.

Note for fantasy readers: the fantasy element in this novel is used “as a means of distraction from realities too painful to face.” See http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/08/kazuo-ishiguro-rebuffs-genre-snobbery

My rating:

4 stars. A hard one to rate, the slow start, though possibly unavoidable, meant that it dragged a bit for me, so didn’t quite hit the giddy heights of a five-star read, so I’d say, a very solid 4 stars.

Have you read The Buried Giant? Do leave a comment below I’d love to hear from you.

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Marje @ Kyrosmagica xx

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