Monday, August 3, 2015

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

I've been worse than truant in my reviews this year--I plead the "two children 3 and under exemption--but Brittany requested a review of The Buried Giant, which both Chris and Randy read this year, and I'd hoped to review it anyway, as a fan of Ishiguro's other novels.

The Buried Giant is Ishiguro trying his hand at the genre of high fantasy. The plot is fairly simple--an older couple travel across a fantastical land to visit their son who lives a ways away. Along the way they encounter vengeful village people (not THOSE Village People), one of King Arthur's Knights, monks who are not what they seem and, tying them all together, an ancient dragon whose breath keeps the entire world in a state of forgetting.

It's not a state of total amnesia--people remember their names, some of their acquaintances, bits and pieces of their past--but in a way, it's worse. They live with the past constantly on the tip of their tongue, unable to recall it. They, and the reader, sense from the beginning that this isn't personal--and that there's reason to suspect that remembering might not lead to a happy ending.

Based on the other two Ishiguro books I've read, Never Let Me Go and Remains of the Day, this is all very much in Ishiguro's wheelhouse. Characters who can't quite remember, or contextualize, their lives, the questions of choice and agency, the gradual revelation of a world that looks normal but is revealed in turns to have some sinister underpinnings. Not that any of this is bad. These are complex, nearly bottomless themes, and Ishiguro has--and does at times here--explored them quite artfully. Here though, things don't really come together in a satisfactory way.

First, the good. There are some great setpieces here--I enjoyed the couple's harrowing journey across a fairy-haunted lake and their stay at a creepy monastary--and the medieval atmosphere occasionally works well--it's hard to imagine something like a monastery chase happening in modern times. Axl and Beatrice are strong characters, and their interactions, which form the emotional core of the book, work in spite of their sometimes stilted stylization.

Ultimately, though, I have to side with Usula K. LeGuin and Chris. There are just too many weak links in the story for it to hit as hard as Never Let Me Go or Remains. The fantasyland Ishiguro creates too often feels like it exists on a soundstage, with the cast too frequently lapsing into parodic dialog. Two of the main characters, the warrior Wistan and the elder Arthurian Gawain, never develop much beyond their archetypes, and the twists, which in Never Let Me Go and Remains are both surprising and enriching to the story being told, are, here, somewhat predictable and don't expand the themes of the story beyond what we already know.

I enjoyed The Buried Giant, but it is by far my least favorite Ishiguro. Pick up the other two books mentioned here first. I'm not sure this one is really necessary if you can remember those.


Randy said...

I'm feeling very in the minority here...

Brent Waggoner said...

You made a good case for it in your review. I'm curious--what did you feel the fantasy setting added to the story?

Randy said...

(1) added some cool factor. I realize for fantasy fans, this may be light or cliche fare, but for me, it was cool.

(2) in terms of plot/Ishiguro's work: I really liked that the novel was able to start with the characters aware of their unawareness, even if only slightly at the beginning. Where his other novels develop the awareness-of-unawareness, and sort of peak with maximizing the reader's understanding of the awareness-of-unawareness, this novel starts there and explores what a person is supposed to do when they know there's something they are in denial about. Or know there is something they are unaware about. I suppose he could have done this without the fantasy-element, but it works well (for me) with the fantasy element. There's less to explain at the starting point. We just have to accept this weird thing of the characters not remembering because of the world.

(3) this might be the same as #1: the fantasy made this a fun read for me. I enjoyed learning about the universe Ishiguro created.