Ishiguro is a best-selling lit-fic novelist who has risen to the lofty career heights of hardbacks and beautiful cover design. The Buried Giant is a lovely object, with all sorts of bookish touches designed to feel good in ones hands and look good lying about the place. I commend the designers.
The content is a curious, dreamy little allegory set in medieval Britain. With history’s ghosts lurking in the unseen distance, the supernatural creeps into the tale, which also references the Arthurian mythos. Sir Gawain, now transformed into a more dour but equally confused version of the White Knight from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, appears and guides our protagonists - an elderly couple seeking to reunite with their son - for some of the journey.
Ishiguro uses a great deal of passive expository prose, mixed with first and third person narration, and even intrudes his own authorial voice briefly toward the end. There are jumps forward and backward in time, jumps in focus on character and journey, and a hazy sense of place that befogs the reader as much as the befuddled protagonists, who are caught in mental haze of tattered memory and forgetfulness.
So, yes, literary fiction - breaking all the rules genre fiction lives and dies by to paint a more impressionistic picture of people and a world. I have a low tolerance of the wank-factor in lit-fic – especially from debut novelists who think characterisation is for romance novels and plot is for young adult reading. But, having just read Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, I know the bugger can write.
Where Remains was a mannered, dry-as-dust comedy of failed romance, skilfully rendered in Edwardian style, The Buried Giant is a very different style of narrative – elegiac and dream-like, meandering from set-piece to set-piece, a little like Alice in fact.
And, also like Alice – though I don’t mean to draw too long a bow on any similarities because there are few - there are a number of levels on which to consider the story. There is a sadness of approaching doom, and the feelings of loss from a past glimpsed only as the mental fog shifts, and hides more than it uncovers. The author, of an age to be farewelling friends and family to death, seeks to bewitch the reader, just as frail bodies and the harsh wounds of time have left the protagonists almost helpless in the mist, their only compass pointing to a son, somewhere, whom they can find if they simply persevere.
Like our own journeys, theirs is interrupted and derailed by life and circumstance, and ends the way all lives must end, facing the void, alone.
Does Ishiguro pull off this stylistic set of tricks to create a rich and engrossing whole? I don’t like sad books as a rule, but Ishiguro has to be admired here for creating a rich world of fantasy and gloom, mired in medieval mud and a life-expectancy half that of ours. Memories of war and betrayal seep through the text a good deal less than joys of the past but, for some of us, that is the nature of memory – happiness eclipsed by regret, regret hidden and lost by deliberate refusal to remember.
The subjects that Ishiguro dwells on in The Buried Giant put character, and to a lesser extent plot, in a support role. Perhaps that’s just how it is with the genre of lit-fic. For me, the book is made worthy by the love and humanity at its heart. I like a novel whose driving force, and prompt for every action of the protagonists, is love.