The Buried Giant is a fantasy novel, or perhaps a fairy tale. It tells the story of a married couple, living in a post Roman Britain, who set off from their dreary and unsympathetic village to find their son. They are old and the butt of children’s jokes. Their lives are dull and uncomfortable. They are ignored and mistreated.
The structure of the novel is episodic, each chapter describing a separate encounter or event on their journey. At one point they are told the story of a mysterious boatman who ferries people to a deserted island, where they are left to wander alone. This metaphor for death is a common mythological trope. The Buried Giant makes considerable use in this way of themes and incidents common to different mythological traditions, adapting them for its own purposes.
The couple, Axl and his wife Beatrice, care for each other deeply. Axl has some faint and deep rooted memory of the day they met, and of her beauty. There are some hints about his mysterious past – possibly he was a warrior who chose to live a domestic life with Beatrice, rather than follow the path of honour and knighthood.
The world they live in is full of danger. It is bleak and empty – not a real landscape but a mythic world of woods and mountains. There are old women with unnerving powers, and monks who it seems cannot be trusted. There are tunnels and caves, monsters and magic.
The story is told in a simple kind of language fitting to its subject matter. Britain is shrouded in a fog of forgetfulness due to a sleeping dragon. Who are Axl and Beatrice? What is their history? Perhaps if they can see through the fog they will find their son? They meet Sir Gawain and other knights and warriors. Perhaps, then, if they can help Gawain kill the dragon, the fog will disappear and bring enlightenment?
Ishiguro is a great writer. In my experience he always writes with the minimum of fuss and emotion, leaving the reader to colour in the blanks. Certainly that is the case here. The love between Axl and Beatrice is in its way epic, though this is always shown through understatement or subtle actions and spare dialogue. Maybe there are allegorical aspects to the story, if you could be bothered to look more deeply.
The Buried Giant is ultimately a story of death and loss, and a story of love. David Mitchell commented that there are things fantasy can achieve that realism can’t. That comment should have been a warning as I’ve found his more recent ventures drifting too far into the world of make believe – see here:
This book is also a No. 1 Sunday Times Bestseller. I suppose that too ought to have put me off, as generally speaking the views of Murdoch’s newspapers are possibly ok – for lighting the fire – but I’d prefer some decent kindling. Its recommendation certainly lived up to the promise of those hypocritical and biased rags – it was not to be relied on. The book was certainly not Ishiguro’s best; though it did interest me, it was also frustrating; in the end I expected to feel moved, and to a small extent I was. I had hoped for more.