Book Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Set in post-Arthurian Britain, The Buried Giant is the tale of a country in a fitful peace, Britons and Saxons living side-by-side in a tense standoff held together by a forgetfulness fog spread over the isle by a dragon, Querig.

The amnesia the dragon breaths lingers over the island and renders its inhabitants incapable of remembering all but the thinnest of memories from their past.

I know how they feel, as reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel put me into a mind numbing stupor where I found myself re-reading paragraph after paragraph in an attempt to understand what the hell was going on.

An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice have a sudden urge to find their son, who left the village several years before. They only have haziest of memories of him and they’re not entirely sure where he is, but they’re also miffed that their neighbours won’t allow them a candle so it seems like a good time to trek across Britain with absolutely no survival skills. Set in a pre-Saxon ruled Britain, this was a time before the island became split into three, a harsh and divided land with no Ubers, so their journey is a difficult one. It’s a Britain of myth and legend, a place where Arthur had recently galloped and where you find ogres dead in ditches, dragons snoozing in pits and pesky little pixies pulling you into the river.

Along the way Beatrice and Axl meet one of the knights of the Round Table, Sir Gawain – without the Green Knight – now an old man who travels the land with his trusty horse Horace (Gringolet has long since gone to horse heaven). Beatrice (whose husband calls constantly – and annoyingly – ‘princess’) and Axl also pick up a young Saxon along the way after saving him from his village when his people turned on him. His presence attracts the attention of Wistain, a warrior Saxon who is rather blade-happy and leaves a trail of blood and destruction in his wake. His quest is to find and kill the dragon Querig. Standing in his way is Sir Gawain who knows the importance of keeping the buried giant breathing.

You certainly can’t accuse Ishiguro of getting stuck in a writing rut. He’s done period romance (Remains of the Day), science fiction (Never Let Me Go) and even dabbled in the detective genre with When We Were Orphans. The Buried Giant seems to be his stab at fantasy, a kind of sub-Tolkien work that reads like an assignment for a creative writing course. Is it a parable? A comment of modern life? Or simply a rather half-hearted fantasy?

Ishiguro is a writer whose skills lies in his minimalist prose that is vivid in its sparseness and it’s a style that I’ve found engaging in the two novels of his I’ve read (Never Let Me Go and When We Were Orphans). But the tone of The Buried Giant is as flat as the Fens and directionless as I would be in those pre-GPS days.

Suzanne Elliott

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Book review: When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro  published by Faber & Faber

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro published by Faber & Faber

With the release of his seventh novel The Buried Giant, I realised I’d rather neglected Kazuo Ishiguro’s back catalogue. The only work I’d read of his was Never Let Me Go a rather gloomy sci-fi novel that was a long way from the musty Merchant and Ivory air that I’d always rather associated with him. Conversely, When We Were Orphans appealed because I needed the bracing air of a costume drama,  a trip into the well-written past. Plus it was the only Ishiguro in the library.

Ishiguro is not a showy writer. I thought that the science fiction coolness of Never Let Me Go encouraged his brisk prose, but it turns out this is just how Ishiguro writes. His cold, odd style fits nicely with When We Were Orphans’ protagonist Christopher Banks who is a rather strange, slightly shady creature who’s, nevertheless, rather endearing. Written in the first person narrative, Christopher is our good friend the unreliable narrator. As is the Ishiguro way, much of Christopher’s true personality is hidden from us, but we do get a few clues from childhood friends (“My goodness, you were such an odd bird at school”) that reveal our narrator may not be as well balanced an individual as his smooth delivery suggests. But, then Christopher is a literary detective and so obliged to be an odd ball.

Set against the backdrop of the opium trade and the rumblings of war, When We Were Orphans is part detective novel, part love story (with, it’s true, very little romance). It reminded me of Graham Greene in his spy drama moments as well as JG Ballard, partly for the Shanghai element and partly for the prose which, like Ballard’s, is beautiful in its plainness. There’s an old-fashioned tone to it that I enjoyed and a commitment to a tight narrative even when the plot heads a little off centre.

The story starts in 1930, although we don’t stay there for long. After an early childhood in the international settlement in Shanghai, Christopher Banks is living in London, a man with an increasingly successful career as a detective. He is reminiscing about one afternoon in 1923 when he bumped into an old friend  who invites him to a party where he sets eyes on the mysterious Sarah Hemming. He is captivated by her despite being warned by a fellow party guest that he’s far too insignificant to peak her interest. She pops up several times in the novel to prove this man wrong.

Banks is presumed to be an orphan, both his parents having disappeared when he was a boy in Shanghai within days of each. His mum was heavily involved in the anti-opium campaign alongside ‘Uncle’ Philip and wasn’t afraid to challenge Chinese warlords and British big businesses about their actions that had led to thousands of helpless local addicts.  Was she killed to silence her? And what was Uncle Philip’s involvement?

Brought back to England by the kindly Colonel Chamberlain, Christopher is brought up by his aunt in Shropshire. The mysterious case of his missing parents casts a dark shadow over his life that he can never quite escape – it shapes his childhood games and choice of career. The novel revisits those years in Shanghai in the run up to his parents’ disappearance where we also meet Akira, Christopher’s childhood friend. We swing backwards and forwards between the past and present  – as the years move on, Christopher’s reputation as a detective continues to rise and, after inheriting a nice little sum from his aunt, his life is comfortable (he even picks up a little Canadian orphan to play families with). But, as he tells the Colonel during a brief reunion in the early 1930s, the past is “where I’ve continued to live all my life. It’s only now I’ve started to make my journey from it”. He must return to Shanghai to discover the truth.

Ishiguro doesn’t believe When We Were Orphans is his best work, and it’s not perfect. The plot rather descends into chaos when Banks returns to China and starts tearing around chasing ghosts and Sarah (who arrived several months before with her buffoon of a husband) in a blur of a rushed end and strange turns that set off the beggars-belief alarm. But despite the that-would-never-happen klaxon, I was taken with Christopher, his unreliable memory and his attempt to flee the past by hurling himself right at it and soaked up Ishiguro’s crisp prose with relish.

by Suzanne Elliott