Ogres drowned in magical ponds. A boatman with the power to decide your fate. A strange ‘mist’ that has turned memory into a dream. And a couple trudging across plains and mountains in search of their long-lost son.
Ten years in the writing, Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel The Buried Giant was finally released on 3 March this year to critical acclaim. His wife’s calling earlier drafts of the work ‘unpublishable’ being cited as the reason for fans’ decade-long wait, all that they were left wondering was whether any new book could reach the heights of 1989 Booker Prize winner The Remains of the Day or its shortlisted successor Never Let Me Go. But what they were instead presented with was a novel that refuses to be defined.
To the reader uninitiated in the world of Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant may at first seem a simple fantasy novel, its combination of quest and legend leaving it somewhere in between The Hobbit and the tales of King Arthur. With the appearance of Sir Gawain, it even becomes the latter halfway through. This is, of course, not to detract from its mastery of form, as the suspense of the forgotten (or perhaps the hidden) draws the reader through its chapters to the soundtrack of another world’s biting winds and clashing swords. They must, however, be prepared for a journey which is not purely physical, and which leaves the conventions of the genre far behind.
Yet to the reader acquainted with Ishiguro’s literary backstory, what is actually experienced is a break not with fantastical tradition but with the author’s own, in a divergence which we have seen little of since the release of The Unconsoled in 1995, and perhaps not even then. Eastern Europe may be replaced with Anglo-Saxon England, and classical music with dragons, but what these novels share is an innovativeness not often seen in a world of mass-produced art. Luckily for Ishiguro, this second break has not been nearly so controversial.
Those expecting Ishiguro’s trademark first-person narration may suffer initial disappointment, but this immediate immersion that may be lost is quickly recovered as you enter Axl and Beatrice’s isolated village world. Ishiguro may deviate from the use of one consistent voice, but rather than limiting psychological exploration, this seems in fact to widen its potential as multiple characters gain the power of expression. Characters are still granted short internal monologues, and in a novel whose ultimate theme is the power of memory, perhaps a view from the outside is better placed. The reader is trapped in a state of unknowing with its protagonists, questioning everything and learning little, as they too lack the capacity to access the events of the past.
Another surprise encountered by ardent fans may be the inclusion of a plot. Whereas past novels – with the slight exception of When We Were Orphans – focus on traversing a non-linear path through the wilderness of the remembered (and wished forgotten) past, here an inversion of the theme causes this wilderness to become literal. If memories have been lost from the mind they must be sought out in the world, starting a quest which can only become more complex as more is learnt, or at least suspected. What is seen here is real-time action that moves forwards in order to help Axl, Beatrice, and their readers finally move backwards.
But what readers will also find is Ishiguro’s own return. Despite these glaring superficial differences from his past works, The Buried Giant is still very much deserving of its place within the canon of his literary production. Differences of form there may be, but his ideas stand firm. Axl and Beatrice earn their place alongside Ono, Etsuko, Stevens, and Kathy C as all share the same preoccupations about the validity of their past. Whether these stem from its artificial creation, the threat of lost status, or the simple fear of what the ‘mist’ could hide, the poignancy of this emotion and its wearing down of the self is what brings them together. No matter where you place humans, humans they shall remain, and the portrayal of this humanity is where Ishiguro’s talent can shine through.
So, is The Buried Giant what was expected from Ishiguro’s much-awaited new novel? Certainly not. But when has he ever given us that?