Friday, June 12, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Now that I have read Never Let Me Go, I was excited to pick up Kazuo Ishiguro's The Buried Giant. The recent publication has appeared on many lists to recommend it and is proving the be a new favorite for some. I knew going in that it would be different from Never Let Me Go, but I still trusted Ishiguro's masterful storytelling and beautiful detail.

The Situation: Beatrice and Axl, now an elderly couple, have decided it is finally time to journey to the village where their son is now living, after a very long separation from him. They realize they are old and that the journey will be dangerous and difficult, yet they have made up their minds and set out on their journey. What they don't realize is how important the memories of all of their years together will become to them, which is problematic seeing as how they both struggle to recall most of their life together. They also aren't prepared to be joined on the journey by Winstan, a Saxon warrior; Edwin, his orphan charge; and Sir Gawain himself, a knight from King Arthur's Round Table. The five of them will continue on this increasingly mythical journey, all with their own goals and plans.

The Problem: While Beatrice and Axl simply hope to reach their son, it seems Winstan and Sir Gawain also share a goal, to slay the great and dangerous she-dragon Querig. This shared goal should bring the two men together, but it only proves to ultimately push the two apart. As a knight who was given the task under King Arthur, Sir Gawain is reluctant to allow a Saxon warrior take the honor away from him. Meanwhile, Winstan set out on this journey with one goal in mind, and he won't let anyone, even a knight under the great King Arthur, stand in his way. And while the journey was no doubt going to be difficult for Beatrice and Axl, having the three others join them has only added to the journey's treachery. And when they discover that they also may have a stake in Querig's death, they realize they may not have the option of remaining passive participants.

Genre, Themes, History: This is more or less a fantasy novel with many elements taken from stories like Beowulf, as well as other texts that tell of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and even Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. In other words, there is quite a bit going on here. There is even a dragon that needs slaying, and the requisite journey that needs to be made in order to even reach it. On top of all of that, Ishiguro plays a lot with the ideas of memory and forgiveness. Beatrice and Axl want desperately to remember their shared past, while also fearing what will happen to their unity should their memories actually come back. Having the pleasant memories return is all well and good, but what happens when the bad memories of how someone hurt you returns? The ultimate end game for the story may be the death of the she-dragon, but having her slayed means much more than being safe from her attacks. And in many ways, her death would only be the beginning of the real journey.

My Verdict: To put it simply, this book was actually quite disappointing. It probably isn't at all fair to compare it to Never Let Me Go, but I am anyway, and The Buried Giant just does not measure up. For one, there are just too many unanswered questions when it comes to the end. Second, while at its core the book may be a journey to slay a dragon, there is mostly just a lot of talking and thinking that goes on. There are some page-turning spots, and both Winstan and Sir Gawain, along with Edwin, do provide the occasional fight scene. But even so, there really isn't much action to balance out the pondering and the talking. And the ending just isn't a big enough payoff for the slow moving story you have to endure to get there.

Favorite Moment: When Beatrice and Axl discover what is behind their fading memories.

Favorite Character: Beatrice and Axl both are delightful and surprisingly formidable old people, but it is the way Axl takes care of his wife along this increasingly difficult journey that endears him to me.

Recommended Reading: It will come as no surprise that I am recommending Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. It is a very different story that reaches more into the future than the past, and for me it is a much stronger novel.

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