Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is one of my favourite books of all time. If you haven’t read it, go and do so right now. And then watch the movie. It’s also great.
Now, ten years after writing a sci-fi meditation on love and mortality, Ishiguro has broken his long silence with…. a fantasy meditation on love and mortality.
Stick with what works, I guess.
Our story takes place in a mythical ancient Britain where ogres and malevolent spirits roam the land and the events of Arthurian legend are fresh in living memory. A strange collective amnesia, dubbed “the mist” by the protagonists, is erasing people’s memories of their past and causing spells of forgetfulness.
An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, decide to set off on a journey to visit their son, partly in an effort to rekindle the now-hazy memories of their life together. Along the way they’re embroiled in the quest of a certain famous knight, now an elderly man, and the long-buried violence between Saxon and Briton that once tore the land apart but which seems to have vanished as mysteriously as everyone’s memories.
The Buried Giant is difficult to talk about. In many ways it operates perfectly well on the level of a straight-up mythic fantasy tale, concerning as it does a group of characters embarking on a treacherous quest across a strange, perilous land. There’s fighting and plot twists and characters with mysterious pasts that come out during Shocking Revelations- all the kinds of things you’d expect from that brief plot synopsis. Ishiguro conjures up a grimy low fantasy medieval landscape thick with atmosphere and history using very little in the way of description and exposition; just in like in Never Let Me Go, he plants the idea of fully built world in your mind without actually showing you a whole lot of it.
But at the same time, the book in some ways doesn’t hold together if read as a strictly literal story. This is a musing on the approach of death and how it effects people and their relationships, as well as on the cyclical nature of violence and the role memory plays in history, delivered through the medium of a fantasy quest, and when the priorities of one conflict with the priorities of the other Ishiguro sides with the latter every time. Axl and Beatrice repeatedly stumble onto characters whose only function is to introduce plot or thematic concepts that will be important later, and at one point the story twists itself into a visible knot to reintroduce someone who had seemingly taken their leave of our protagonists several chapter earlier. Either the heady, slightly surreal atmosphere of legend and fairytale logic sweeps you along and you shrug this off as unimportant, or it becomes a major sticking point. I was firmly in the former camp, but your mileage may vary.
Less forgivable is the fact that Ishiguro seems to have a lot of trouble sticking to a consistent point of view or storytelling style. Early chapters are delivered via an invisible narrator who refers to themselves explicitly and addresses the reader at times, contrasting Axl and Beatrice’s Britain with the one they might be familiar with. This abruptly stops about a third of the way in, replaced with a more standard third-person narration that jumps from character to character. And then in the last third we start getting the “reveries of Gawain”, first-person sections narrated in a real-time quasi stream of consciousness manner by the famous knight himself. All of this gives the odd impression that you’re reading a single plotline stitched together across fragments of several different novels, or that Ishiguro had a very definite idea of what topics and themes he wanted to address but not how he was actually going to turn them into a story. That those themes and ideas are fascinating and explored with nuance and intelligence doesn’t entirely forgive the sloppiness with which they’re presented.
Ishiguro’s prose is another somewhat divisive element. The conjuring trick I mentioned earlier of building a world without engaging in very much world-building is accomplished by a deft control of description: there’s very little of it, but what we do get is evocative enough to paint the broad brushstrokes of what this world is like. Rather than go for any attempt at period-appropriate dialogue, character’s speech is rendered in the slightly ornate style of a victorian novel, with conversations often couched between paragraphs of polite entreaties and greetings. For some reason I eat this shit up, but I can see a lot of people thinking “get to the fucking point already”, particularly when said conversations run for several pages and take place right before a climactic fight scene you’ve been waiting half the novel to see the conclusion of. Again, your mileage will likely vary heavily.
Axl and Beatrice themselves tie the whole thing together. For all of its ogres and dragons and whatnot, this is really the story of an elderly couple facing their coming mortality and taking stock of the life they’ve spent together, and it’s profoundly heartbreaking to watch them march forward in the blithe assumption that when their memories are restored it’s all going to be sunshine and roses. I don’t feel like I’m spoiling anything to say that their relationship doesn’t turn out to have been nearly as ideal as they’re assuming- it’s telegraphed pretty far in advance- but at the same time Ishiguro doesn’t play this aspect of the story for a cheap twist. Their lives as revealed in the book’s final pages are complex, realistic and ambiguous, and quite a lot is ultimately left for the reader to decipher themselves.
I don’t think this book is going to be for everyone, but it certainly hit the spot for me. I can only hope Ishiguro writes more books as simultaneously captivating and complex as this, and that it takes him less than ten years to do it this time.