Historical Fiction · Magical Realism

The Buried Giant

I have like 3 or 4 books on my shelf by Ishiguro, and they’ve all been on my TBR list for so long now… For some reason I have just kept putting them off. But, in light of the recent announcement of his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, I felt that now, if ever, would be the time to jump into one. I ended up choosing The Buried Giant because it takes place in post-Arthurian Britain…and I do love King Arthur.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

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“The giant, once well buried, now stirs.”

This is a very odd tale – a mix of light fantasy/magical realism, historical fiction, and philosophy. The tone was incredibly ephemeral, atmospheric and metaphorical. Even before I had any idea what there could be a metaphor for, or even if there was one at all, it felt like I was reading one. The dialogue is written in the sort of awkwardly stilted, exclamatory way, interspersed with the verbose, slightly long-winded, exposition that is common in classic English literature (like in Shakespeare or Chaucer). It’s not necessarily my favorite writing style, and it’s definitely a bit cumbersome to read, taking a bit more effort on the part of the reader than I generally like (as far as wordiness is concerned). What it makes me think of is when you are listening to someone speaking with an accent: it’s totally fine, you can understand them no problem, but you have to pay close attention to the cadence, because if you lose that, it becomes very hard to follow or understand. However, considering the time period in which this story is based, that style does add to the overall ambiance of the novel.

We follow Axl and Beatrice, both Britons, as they start off on a journey to visit the village where their son lives. Along the way, they are joined by a Saxon warrior, a young Saxon orphan, and an aged Briton knight who once in his past served King Arthur. Although they travel together, throughout the story each of their separate agendas begin to emerge, placing some of them greatly at odds with the others. This is all complicated by the fact that a strange mist hovers over the land, obscuring the past and causing a general forgetfulness among the population. But as each of them have memories stirred by the faces and actions of the others, a fairly dark and tangled picture of their troubled histories takes shape.

This is one of those books that I feel like a college English class could dissect ad nauseum, with theories about what the author was trying to say in his explorations of love, war, revenge and memory. Although I feel like I never actually (or at least never confidently) figured out what this novel’s metaphor(s) might be, these are incredibly universal themes that we are given to think about. And with the story revolving around a mist of forgetfulness, it is easy to philosophize about the benefits or harm of forgetting the past versus remembering it. Is it better to leave behind the transgressions of war in order to build a more peaceful future or the remember them so that mistakes are not remade? Is it better to move past personal betrayals in order to focus on a better future relationship or to remember those failures and learn from them? These are very interesting, very thoughtful, very deep explorations that the author gives us on the basis for the growth of a nation and the bonds of love. And they are fascinatingly presented for discussion here (I mean take a second to truly think about what your relationships and life might look like if you could not remember any of the major terrible, or wonderful, events from your past – it’s overwhelming, a bit terrifying, and super intriguing). But if you are someone who prefers a clear moral, a wrapped-up conclusion, a tight story…you will not necessarily get that. This is more of a story for posing questions than answering them.

Overall, this was an impressive story, harkening back to classic English literature in form and language. It’s cerebral and not for the faint of heart, and though it was more effort to get through that I would have hoped for, I definitely recognize the brilliance behind it. I can see why Ishiguro has received such accolades.


Some beautiful sentiments about love:

“But then again I wonder if what we feel in our hearts today isn’t like these raindrops still falling on us from the soaked leaves above, even though the sky itself long stopped raining. I’m wondering if without our memories there’s nothing for it but for our love to fade and die.”

“For I suppose there’s some would hear my words and think our love flawed and broken. But God will know the slow tread of an old couple’s love for each other, and understand how black shadows make part of its whole.”

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