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Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant

When I read Ian McEwan‘s The Children Act, I commented I have to say that if this book had not been written by McEwan, I doubt whether I would have read it. I am afraid that I have to say the same for this book. If it had not been written by Ishiguro, I almost certainly would not have read it.

Ishiguro himself and Jonathan Sturgeon commenting on the book and Ishiguro’s remarks, maintain that this book is not fantasy. Sturgeon argues you will notice something peculiar about the vast majority of its references to dragons and ogres and magic: they’re hearsay. In some cases, they are. We do not always see them, but several of the characters (claim to) do so. However, we do see ogres, pixies and a dragon and those are certainly fantasy. Gawain, of the Arthurian legends, appears as an elderly knight. He is certainly a fictitious character, a character of legend, as is King Arthur, who is also referred to on many occasions. The story tells of an elderly couple who live in a warren, who set out on perilous journey, fraught with danger and threatened by ogres and dragons, real or imagined, in a quest. It is clear that Ishiguro has read his Lord of the Rings. While Tolkien did not, of course, invent this genre, he is certainly the best-known contemporary exponent of it. In short, this novel cannot really pretend not to be fantasy.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with fantasy and it could certainly be argued that, for example, magic realism is fantasy. However, rightly or wrongly, it is generally argued that Tolkien-style or Arthurian legend fantasy generally does not produce great literature. The ideas and themes we have come to expect of Ishiguro, while not entirely absent from this book, are not to the fore as in his earlier works, as the plot – the various quests à la Tolkien/Arthurian fantasy – dominates everything else.

This novel is set in fifth/sixth century England.. The Romans have gone, leaving crumbling villas, and the Saxons have started moving in. However, our focus is on the native Britons, who live in warrens, rather than villages with houses, like the Saxons. As the narrator reminds us, the landscape would look distinctly unfamiliar to contemporary Britons – no winding lanes, hedgerows or meadows. Moreover, ogres, sprites and dragons are taken for granted. There seems to be an uneasy truce between the Saxons and Britons. Our heroes are an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, who live and work in one of these warren villages. Like everyone else, they seem to be forgetting things. This is not just because of old age but, apparently, because of a strange mist, which explains why the Saxons and Britons have forgotten their enmity. This forgetting mist will affect others in the book. Things are not too happy for them when they recall that they have a son in another village and decide to go and see him, despite the fact they are not exactly sure where he lives, that it will be a long journey and, as they work communally, will have to get permission from the others. However, they obtain permission and off they set.

They stop off in a Saxon village, where they meet a Saxon warrior, who may be of British origin. The warrior, Wistan, helps the villagers, some of whose number have been attacked by ogres. He then decides to accompany Axl and Beatrice, along with Edwin, a twelve-year old boy, who has been tainted in the eyes of the village, as he was allegedly bitten by one of the ogres. Edwin is the traditional young boy who is going to become a hero. Of course, the four of them meet problems on the path, from a knight who wants to kill Wistan to Gawain, from dubious monks to a British warlord who has personal vendetta against Wistan. But it soon becomes apparent that both Wistan and Axl have a past, which, because of the mist, this conveniently means that not only do we not know about it but nor do they. Eventually, it all comes down to whether they can find and defeat the dragon, Wistan can keep out of the clutches of Lord Brennus and our elderly couple can find their son and live happily ever after.

I am not a big fan of Lord of the Rings and this book is, in my view, sub-Lord of the Rings/Mary Stewart. If you like that sort of thing, you may well enjoy this book. If you do not, you will, like me, perhaps lament that here is yet another talented English writer who seems to be on the slippery downward slope. With the young generation of British writers yet to really impress, and the older generation losing the plot (pun intended), the future of the British novel does not look terribly promising.

Publishing history

First published 2015 by Faber & Faber