Witch Week Day Six: The Buried Giant Readalong

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant (2015)

A few days after I announced that The Buried Giant would be our Witch Week readalong book, author Kazuo Ishiguro became a Nobel Laureate. The magic of Witch Week may be stronger than we realize…

Intrigued by the synchronicity, I embarked on my third Ishiguro novel. I had been wowed by The Remains of the Day, and absorbed by Never Let Me Go, but I had a harder time getting into this one. Though in those other books Ishiguro brilliantly worked with unreliable narration and hidden realities, in the end an astute reader was able to figure out what was going on. In Giant the fog never seemed to lift, and while this may well have been the author’s intention, it made it hard for me to feel connected to the story.

A brain-fuddling fog is indeed very much part of the narrative, as the characters themselves experience and describe it. In a post-Arthurian Britain (Arthur being conceived as the quasi-historical sixth century war leader), an elderly couple sets out on a journey to find their son. Beatrice and Axl are devoted to each other, but they can’t quite remember why. Nor can they recall why their son went away, where exactly he is, or what happened during the recent war between Britons and Saxons that has left both peoples uneasily co-habiting on their small island.

As they join up with some other wanderers — one of Arthur’s knights, a Saxon warrior, and an outcast boy — they become convinced that the source of their befuddlement is a she-dragon who is exhaling a fog of forgetfulness over the land. Beatrice is determined to overcome the dragon and recover their memories of her life together with Axl; he, meanwhile, begins to have discomforting experiences of a painful past and doubts about the future.

Ishiguro writes in a vaguely sing-songy style that seems to be an attempt to recall medieval texts without being too self-consciously archaic. His narration jumps about, mostly centered on Beatrice and Axl but with excursions into other minds and points of view. It’s a scattered, schizophrenic kind of tale, in which random, partial memories surface but seldom cohere into full realization.

I have to admit that I had a difficult time puzzling out what was metaphor, what was delusion, and what was reality, and that this made me uncomfortable. There were some indications that what certain characters described as otherworldly creatures or phenomena (e.g. ogres) had a more mundane explanation, and that the pre-conceptions of the characters determined the world they perceived. This is an interesting philosophical point, but disorienting when applied to a story, in which generally the author is performing the magic trick of making us believe in something that doesn’t exist. It matters not whether that something is a dragon or a duchess or a dachshund; within the world of a story it must gain being and presence, or why bother with it?

This dis-orientation was inconsistent. There were times when it was very hard to imagine an alternative explanation for what the characters were describing, other than that they were all completely insane. And yet, if that were the case, what could be gained from entering into their fractured minds? Were we meant to reflect on our own self-delusional versions of an impenetrable reality? That’s a stage on everyone’s quest, but to me it cannot be the end. I believe in meaning and wholeness, and if that betrays my lack of sophistication as a reader and human being, so be it. I’m not interested in obfuscation or mystification for its own sake, only when it helps to break us through to a higher level of understanding.

Though I enjoyed parts of the journey, appreciated much of the imagery, and grew to care for some of the characters, in the end I was left frustrated and dissatisfied. Perhaps a reread will enlighten me further as to what Ishiguro might have been trying to say, but right now I’m not at all sure.

If you read the book, what did you think? Please share your own ideas in the comments, or link up your own posts on the Master Post. I’m happy to read dissenting opinions, and grateful for any light you can shed on this conundrum.


19 thoughts on “Witch Week Day Six: The Buried Giant Readalong

  1. A very thoughtful response, Lory, to a difficult and divisive work. Like the mist that has descended on Ishiguro’s Dark Age Britain obfuscation is indeed responsible for the disorientation in The Buried Giant, and I appreciate your frustration with it.

    My take on this was that the novel is a modern-day parable in the tradition of Bunyan rather than a piece of historical fiction; and in some respects it’s even similar to much medieval Arthurian literature which only used the Matter of Britain as a peg on which to hang an unrelated story or a popular tale retold.

    Unlike Bunyan, who took a distinctly allegorical approach to Christian’s pilgrimage, I think Ishiguro has made his parable more humanist, focusing on themes like collective amnesia about the past, anxieties about growing old, and ethnic hatred — all motifs as pertinent to now as to any time in the past.

    Like you I’m not utterly convinced that it works, but it’s dream-like quality continues to haunt me: and maybe this is the point, if there is a point, to haunt us as all powerful dreams do. (You suggested it was an instance of “interesting ambiguity” in your comment on my review at https://wp.me/s2oNj1-giant.) I suspect this is the dream that, one way or another, understandably haunts the author.


    1. But does a parable work if you punch through its surface — but only partly? Can you be dreaming and awake at the same time?

      When one wakes, the dream state is seen for what it is. Being in a state of not knowing if one is awake or dreaming is what I would call insanity. That’s what bugged me about the novel — not so much that the characters were in that state (they did not, in fact, question their perceptions), as that we, the readers, couldn’t get a grasp on what was real for them or for us.

      Maybe I don’t like having my own sanity tested or questioned, and I shouldn’t blame Ishiguro for that — but it certainly disturbed the reading experience for me. I appreciate the chance to discuss and try to get clearer about my response, because I’m still not at all sure what I really think.


      1. I absolutely follow your disquiet about the porous interface between dream and reality in this novel: I found that it was never clear if all the ogres or dragons were truly there or figments of the imagination. As I said in my review there was a suspicion that we were having the wool over our eyes.

        Emotionally I want to, as it were, buy into Ishiguro’s vision, but rationally I do find it problematic.


  2. I didn’t have trouble with what was real and what was mythic about this tale because everything grew to have a real resonance, for me. I’m posting my review now so you can see what I mean at length if you care to.


      1. Sorry about the linking, Chris had that problem too and I don’t know why. I can remove the extra links.

        Thanks very much for your post. I shall need to take time to ponder it, and probably respond in the comments there.


  3. I had a problem with this one, too. I loved this book initially but as it wound on and the bones and structure of the story grew increasingly difficult to pin down, I found it frustrating. Initially I had thought the premise so very powerful and poignant – but the ending seemed rushed and unsatisfactory. Indeed, I thought the pacing throughout to be rather uneven – too quick in some places and rather too leisurely in others. It’s a book that has stayed with me – but I always feel a twinge of regret that such a wonderful idea somehow slipped through his fingers…


    1. Yes, there were parts that really resonated with me and I felt disappointed that the whole did not gel for me. I can deal with a certain amount of ambiguity, but I felt as though the particular way he employed it didn’t quite work.


  4. I ultimately finished the book with the feeling that I had missed something. My feeling was that either I must not have known the underlying history/myths that Ishiguro built this tale from or I didn’t pay close enough attention while reading. And then the ending was so heartbreaking (as well as the behavior of Sir Gawain) that I didn’t see the point of any of it.
    I did assume that the monsters were literal but now you have me questioning that! Overall, I thought it was a beautiful but hollow story. It didn’t “give” me anything to hold on to when I was done. For all of the very real questing and peril, it still seemed very unreal — so I guess I had the same feelings of discomfort and dissatisfaction that you did.


    1. The ending did not come as a surprise to me after Ishiguro’s other novels. But you describe well what bothered me: “For all of the very real questing and peril, it still seemed very unreal” — and that was not the case with his others. I think going into this historical/fantastical mode was an experiment with mixed results for him.


  5. I love reading all the comments. I can never have enough of Ishiguro. He always manages to disconcert me as a reader, he leaves me wanting more. I wish this book had been longer. I agree with sjhigbee that the end felt rushed. However, I feel I start reading his books once I finish them! They stay with me forever. After I finished this one, I kept thinking about them for long. My rational side is left unhappy, and always wanting for more. On the other hand, if I let go, it pleases me, it takes me to an otherworldly world, it both quenches my thirst but it leaves me with lots of new questions. This book is less western than Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, it feels more eastern (or just different, -it’s not as if I know what “eastern” books are supposed to be like. What I mean is that Ishiguro is a confluence of Japan and England, so I believe he moves in that pendulum and The Great Giant is leaning toward his non English/Western/Rational with a closure type of book. Does he execute well?, that’s the problem. I’m not sure if part of the game is to leave us deliberately unsatisfied, to explore a different way of telling a story, or if we can still say he didn’t take us all the way there.


    1. That is an interesting point that this is a more “eastern” feeling book, since the Arthurian legend is a very Western mythos. That may indeed be part of what disconcerts me. And I know this may be a deliberate effect. Still lots to explore and ponder in Ishiguro, I would like to read his other books as well.


      1. The Arthurian legend is a very Western mythos, yes, but the time this book is placed at, is before Western Enlightenment, thus the way the characters talk, and the worldviews are different to our modern ones. So maybe it wasn’t Eastern what I was aiming for, but a non rational or modern story, told without rational or modern language.

        I heard him say at an interview, that after almost a year, he started the book all over because his wife told him the English did not sound ‘old’. I admire how the language cannot be pinned to today, but it has that atemporal quality to it. I agree, still lots to explore and ponder in this fascinating author.


  6. I listened to this book on audio earlier this year and really liked it. Read to me, it had a very story book quality which I enjoyed. I had only previously read (and loved) Never Let Me Go.

    I think you are right to be unsettled by the book Lory. I think you are supposed to be. The Arthurian legends can be black and white; Saxon=evil and Briton=good. Knights are chivalrous and maidens are rescued. The Buried Giant upends that and does not provide any easy answers. Good and evil depend upon perception. Is Wiston a good man? Is Sir Gwain a good man? They both have committed evil acts in the name of their kings and kin, but they have also acted nobly elsewhere contrary to their ethnic or political affiliations. Is the dragon evil or necessary or is she herself a victim? Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?

    If there is any story at all, it is that of Beatrice and Axly and their journey towards death. They don’t know what is on the other side; ultimately Axl realizes they cannot make the journey together but he is ready to let go and can remember his long life…and his regrets. I agree with Chris’ interpretation of this book as a parable but with humanist ideas that we grapple with all the time. Or maybe it is better to think of it as a koan (alluding to Sylvia’s non-western comment) which can not be answered but only meditated upon.


    1. Thanks Ruthiella for giving me more to think about. There is something indeed very koan-like about the book and it may behoove me to meditate on the paradoxes without trying to “solve” them.


    1. But what is the point of the disorientation? To me that is just not enough. However, other readers have found meaning in it, and maybe one day I will too.

      Thanks for the video links, I really enjoyed them.


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