The Buried Giant is my first taste of Kazuo Ishiguro’s work and on reflection possibly not the best place to start. Intellectually I enjoyed the novel, especially the second half, but some uneven character work made the beginning section a real slog. In particular, the first third of the novel is mostly focussed on the tiresome adventures of two octogenarians – Beatrice and Axl – as they sally forth from their small village to visit their estranged son who lives in a nearby town. Or so they think. One of the running threads throughout the novel, and about the only thing that makes the first third palatable, is the idea that people’s long and medium term memories are fading, that some sort of mist is erasing their past.
The book is set around the 5th Century in Britain during a small window of time, post the death of King Arthur, where Britons and Saxons live an uneasy peace. The supernatural is still a thing with ogres and dragons, while not prevalent, remaining a threat for those who wander outside the safe surrounds of their village. So, this is a fantasy novel, but one where the magic is muted and fading just like the memories of Axl and Beatrice and those they meet on their journey.
It’s when Axl and Beatrice come across Master Wistan (a master swordsman with a secret mission) and Sir Gawain and his horse Horace that the book becomes a more enjoyable reading experience. But it’s only in the last third, and especially the final fifty pages or so when the novel truly kicks into high gear, where truths become apparent and where Ishiguro explores the theme – hidden for so much of the novel – of hatred begetting hatred and violence begetting violence. There’s a beautiful, subtle tragedy to those final pages that nearly, but not quite, makes the first third a worthwhile slog.
Maybe I would have got more out of The Buried Giant if King Arthur and his mythology was part of my cultural heritage.