In The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro tackles the ethics of memory. The central question of the novel concerns whether it is better to forget old hurts or to remember them. Is a shallow, immediate life lacking the depths of a recollected past–and with it the old, festering wounds that breed resentment and vengeance–preferable to a life enriched by the joys and sorrows and tragedies of the past as well as those of the present? While the narrative itself often wanders, and the storytelling is filled with half-remembered (often mis-remembered) anecdotes, Ishiguro commits fully to exploring this question, and bravely embraces an ambiguity which forces the reader to come to their own answer.
Where The Buried Giant shines is in the married simplicity of its writing and complexity of its themes. Never are you left wondering what is going on now in the story, but its themes of memory and forgetting lead to a great deal of fuzziness regarding the backstories of characters and the history of their world. The narrative moves forward clearly, but when characters contemplate their past or their place in the world things become unclear. While perhaps frustrating to readers who enjoy concrete worldbuilding, this tension highlights the questions with which Ishiguro is wrestling. The lives of our protagonists–Axl and Beatrice, an old married couple–in their present are not perfect, but they are happy. Would clearly remembering their past–which they only glimpse in fragments–make their lives more meaningful, or dredge up old wounds that might ruin their present happiness? Axl and Beatrice’s struggle with their personal history parallels the broader, grander struggle in which they become entangled. This parallelism connects Ishiguro’s exploration of the ethics of memory both to relatable, interpersonal relationships and to broader political concerns.
Where The Buried Giant struggles is in its third act. Plot threads become too neatly untangled and tied back together. Characters take actions directed by the needs of plot, rather than their own goals and objectives. While the climax and ending of the story are excellent, the transition from the ending of the second act to the climactic midpoint of the third is jarring, with Axl and Beatrice’s adventure digressing in ways which both seem pointless at the time and are revealed to be pointless at the climax. There are good character moments in this frustrating section of the book, but the narrative drive lags.
The Buried Giant straddles the line between “fantasy” and “literary” fiction in a way which might alienate some readers. Like “literary” fiction, it at times seems more interested in its thematic and philosophical content than in its narrative. Yet the novel is set within the Arthurian canon (Gawain is a main character!) and its principal narrative objective is the slaying of a dragon and the resolution of the sort of setting-based conflict common to fantasy literature (Destroy the One Ring. Seal the Dark One’s prison. Prepare for the Long Night and the coming of the White Walkers. Slay the Dragon and break her spell on the world.) Personally, I would class The Buried Giant as a fantasy novel. Ultimately such genre distinctions serve only to connect readers to books they enjoy, and The Buried Giant most reminds me of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea novels. Readers who enjoy that variety of adventurous and contemplative storytelling will thoroughly enjoy The Buried Giant.