I’ve had mixed views about Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels in the past. I was baffled by ‘Never Let Me Go’ but enjoyed it, I was even more baffled by ‘The Unconsoled‘ and enjoyed it much less. I liked ‘When We Were Orphans’ but thought it wasn’t quite as good as ‘The Remains of the Day’ which I think is a modern classic. My initial thoughts on his latest novel ‘The Buried Giant’ definitely lean more towards bafflement than enjoyment.
Having tackled science fiction in ‘Never Let Me Go’, his last novel which was published a decade ago, and detective fiction in ‘When We Were Orphans’, Ishiguro has moved on to historical fantasy territory in ‘The Buried Giant’. As regular readers of my blog will have guessed, fantasy isn’t my favourite genre but if the writing is likely to be good, I will give it a go. Set in the Dark Ages after a war between Saxons and Britons, it tells the story of Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple who set out on a journey to find their son who has disappeared, encountering knights, monks and a dragon called Querig along the way. Axl, Beatrice and the rest of the community only have vague recollections of certain elements of the past and Querig must be killed in order for their memories to return. They refer to this collective amnesia as “the mist”and the memories they do have are not ones that they all share.
One of the more eloquently written one-star reviews of ‘The Buried Giant’ sums up the book as follows: “Imagine if you will Lords of the Rings without Orcs, battles, wizards or any form of action told in the tones of Stevens the butler from Remains of the Day.” The prose itself manages to be simultaneously vague and literal – individual sentences make sense on their own but the cumulative effect is as dense as the mist descending on the community.
Although Ishiguro’s work is impossible to pigeonhole into one genre, memory has been a key theme in all of his novels. In general, I find it is usually one of the more interesting themes in literature as it generates a lot of scope for ambiguity. However, I do tend to struggle with books where none of the characters have a clue about what’s going on, or any clear memory of the experiences which have shaped their personality, especially in a setting as vague as the Dark Ages. I skimmed the last four chapters although I don’t think I missed much.
I think ‘The Buried Giant’ would have seriously struggled to find an audience had the book not had Ishiguro’s name on the cover and I can see why the response has been mostly underwhelming. However, like other genre-hopping writers such as Ian McEwan and Dave Eggers, Ishiguro’s body of work is so varied that I doubt that many of his readers would claim to enjoy all of his novels equally – not that this is likely to bother Ishiguro who seems to be an author who truly only writes for himself.