It is a rare thing when an author of so-called “literary fiction” veers off to create genre fiction. However, when it does happen, it can be a thoroughly engaging read. That is the case with The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.
The Nobel Prize-winning author is well-known for a number of literary works, but his fantasy novel, The Buried Giant, stands a bit apart from those other texts. It is most definitely dramatic, the story incorporates fantasy elements, enough of which drag it into the genre itself. To be specific, the story is probably best catalogued as “Arthurian” due to its references to the fabled king.
The tale is set in Britain shortly after the death of Arthur, but at a time when his knights may still be roaming the countryside. The protagonists are an elderly couple (Axl and Beatrice) that set off to visit their estranged son. However, they can’t remember where he lives on account of a memory-draining mist that is created by an enchanted dragon. As you can plainly see, the story has fantasy elements.
For my part, I found the book to be very well-written, but not at all dependent upon genre conventions. There were times I doubted the story to be fantasy at all and was instead a dramatic story relying on a combination of folkloric superstition and unreliable narration. An example from the text would be when Axl and Beatrice were early in their trek and speaking about a sleeping giant that was beneath a hill. Neither characters question the veracity of the knowledge, even if it seemed absurd. It was taken as fact that there really was a giant slumbering just where they were somewhere beneath the topsoil. Rather than shirk from the genre, Ishiguro stuck it out and embraced all of this, tidily wrapping fantasy conventions into his story about two travellers at the end of their lives.
It’s here that I have a quibble. While I appreciate the talent that Ishiguro possesses, I can’t help, but wonder if there aren’t some aspects of the story that didn’t need to be present. Years ago, I had read something about writing genre fiction, I believe it was by Stephen King, and the idea put forward was that, if a writer can remove an element of the story, but the tale stays the same, then removing those elements is probably worth the writers time.
Basically, while an author might want to write a paranormal horror story, if that approach is being forced, then the author might want to consider writing a thriller without supernatural elements. It may have served Ishiguro to have taken this approach. A lot of his fantastic elements were presented literally, as though they truly existed, but I’m not sure it was necessary.
Presenting the more fantastic elements of the story works fine. They have a place and don’t detract. My slight sense of confusion comes from considering that the narrators, like everyone in the book, are unreliable. No one can remember anything, or be certain of very much. This makes the idea that folkloric superstitions are omnipresent as viable as the fantasy concepts that were at work in the story. If no one knows what is true, then anything can be.
There were never really any demons, but Axl and Beatrice were certain of their existence. Was it really a monstrous wolf creature, or just a large feral dog with mange? In order for the book to remain a fantasy novel at various points, you need to convince yourself as a reader that the fantasy elements had to be there, even when it isn’t entirely justified.
That being said, Ishiguro stays the course, and works through his story with dragons and knights and maybe even a voyage over the River Styx? Sir Gawain, the Green Knight himself! even has a role in the book. While there was ample opportunity for this to have been historical fiction or magical realism, this story does a credible job at fantasy.
Ishiguro doesn’t break the mould, but the story is a quality tale from start to finish. His real artistic flourishes come not from the genre but from his own approach to the story. The main characters are senior citizens. Historical references and allusions are peppered throughout the text. The story is built upon the architecture of earlier Arthurian stories but references a member of the round table no one in my book club had ever heard of before. Did they even exist? We actually had to debate this because it was subtly worked into the story, that no one could tell if Ishiguro invented the character, or if there was a real historical inspiration.
One thing that has remained after having finished the book is that it has lingered in my memory. Fortunately, I’m not feeling the effects of the tale’s dragon! I finished it weeks ago, and have finished other books since then. Yet, the story continues to reverberate in my mind, especially the ending. It’s one of those books.
Maybe it isn’t the best thing I’ve ever read, but it will make you think if you give it a chance. Ishiguro is an expert wordsmith, and while he’s not necessarily innovative, his fantasy novel is worth your time. This is probably a great book for people that want something that straddles that line between literary and genre fiction, or people that need a break from the more formulaic entries in the genre. I promise, if you let him, Ishiguro will present a challenge, and all while regaling readers with knights, heroes, dragons, and an endearing couple in search of their long-lost child. What’s not to love?