I didn’t grow up fantasizing about King Arthur’s Round Table. I never read The Once and Future King. And since we’re telling the truth, I’ll confess that I only read The Lord of the Rings after I’d already seen the movies and become enamored with a certain elfin prince. All things considered, Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel isn’t the type of book that I would normally read. But I did.
I previously read Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and, like most people, I found it haunting, well-written, startling, and, at times, more than a bit disturbing. Oh, I know, I know. Not another boring article about Never Let Me Go! It’s good. We get it.
That’s not what I want to write about. Instead, I want to write about the Buried Giant which, despite the many reasons I shouldn’t like (and there were more than a few), I truly loved.
Now, this is not your grandma’s novel. Or maybe it is if your grandma is anything like mine—a whip-smart reader willing to sink her teeth into even the most cantankerous novels around. Some novels demand a cocktail with an umbrella and a beach. This is not that novel. This novel demands a roaring fire, a leather armchair (preferably one with your monogram embossed on the back), and three fingers of scotch.
Ishiguro’s new novel follows the journey of Axl and Beatrice, an old couple living in a land only recently lulled into a precarious Briton-Saxon peace. They decide to leave their home of many years to find their son. Might seem simple, but Ishiguro’s writing is anything but. We are quickly submerged into the difficult terrain of fallen knights, ogres that bite, pixies, and, yes, even buried giants.
In the world of YA crossover literature, I was nervous this book would devolve into an adventure with lots of swashbuckling and drawn swords. It does not. In fact, swords are rarely drawn. When they are, it’s preceded by a seemingly ludicrous (and time-consuming) amount of courtesy and chivalry. If chivalry is dead, I won’t be the one to mourn it.
But to critique these aspects of the novel—the old-timey conversation, the drawn out scenes of nothingness, the craggy landscape—is to miss the point. I believe that Ishiguro will be remembered well for this novel which does what all great novels do: stay with you long after you finish the final page.
This is a careful, patient, and luscious novel that holds darker secrets than its fantasy genre tagline might suggest. A thick fog robs Axl and Beatrice of their memories. An old woman slaughters rabbits before a boatman to punish him for an unforgivable offense. A monk, once considered the wisest monk in all the land, has been torn apart by birds.
Before you read this novel, I urge you to avoid having someone tell you the plot. This is not the type of novel you read for plot. This is the type of novel you read for themes. And Ishiguro’s favorite themes of devoted love, unimaginable loss, and the darkness at the end of the tunnel emerge in arguably their most persuasive form.
Let me conclude by saying that Never Let Me Go was a good book. The Buried Giant is a masterpiece. As is the case with most great books, this one has divided readers greatly. Many long time Ishiguro fans are declaring it an utter failure while others feel it does what none of his other novels do. If nothing else, it reminds us that when it comes to Kazuo Ishiguro, expect the radically unexpected.
It’s a difficult ride with a mammoth reward, one that left me feeling like there were so many riches just beneath the surface that I couldn’t quite touch. Ishiguro leaves you with the knowledge that he is in communication with something or someone greater than the majority of authors publishing today.
And most importantly, he is a far better writer.