“There’s a journey we must go on, and no more delay.” So goes the blurb behind the advance reading copy of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. It’s a beautiful book, the stylized tree on the cover combined with the text on the back conveying a world of magic within its pages.
And indeed, Ishiguro invites us into an Arthurian style world, where a mist causes forgetfulness, and an elderly couple sets out on a quest to find their son. The language evokes a world of myth, the childlike Middle Earth in Tolkien’s The Hobbit rather than in his later trilogy. The themes are universal — love and forgiveness and the power of memory.
In Giant, amongst the encounters with knights and battles with dragons, amid the backdrop of political turmoil in England, the heart of the story lies in the love between the elderly couple Axl and Beatrice. A fog of forgetfulness has hidden memories of their past together, and at several points the question is raised whether some memories are best left forgotten. This is a particularly poignant question in light of the setting of the story — right at the crux of change, the death knell of the Arthurian age and the beginning of modern Britain. How much of Axl and Beatrice’s Britain will survive in memory, and given the various armed conflicts in their Britain’s history, how much would we ultimately want to remember?
As with any quest, there is a particular point of no return, the crux as it were of the entire adventure. For Axl and Beatrice, this takes the form of a legend about a boatman. According to the legend, couples who truly love each other may be ferried across to an island where they would be together forever. Yet before the trip, the couple must pass a test to prove the depth of their love, and if they fail, they are doomed to wander the island alone for all eternity. It’s a beautiful metaphor for death, and recalls the romantic ideal of love so strong that it lasts beyond death.
There are a lot of beautiful moments in Giant, and the conversations between Axl and Beatrice at times brought me to tears. But something was missing. I can’t quite put my finger on it, and it’s possible that my expectations were just too high (it’s an Ishiguro, after all). But I was expecting to be transported. And with such a mystical framework for the narrative, with such lyrical language and mythological encounters, I was expecting to lose myself in the world that the author has created. Yet I wasn’t. The story felt just a tad too crafted, the language just a tad too designed that it never quite clicked into a natural cadence. I appreciated what the author was trying to do, and I liked his characters and his themes, but I never quite fully connected to the story. This is a shame, because I love Ishiguro’s work, and I really wanted to lose myself in this book. It wasn’t bad, but it could have been so much more.
Thank you to Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.