A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.

The Buried Giant: Review

The land is large, covered in mist, and hidden from itself. The same can be said for its inhabitants, who mostly stick to their own villages and don’t attempt to venture out into the wilderness beyond. When one couple does, they begin to discover something worrying: the land is unfamiliar, the things they thought about it incorrect. When they ask the people they encounter about these inconsistencies, they only discover more inconsistencies, more beliefs people have that seem to not line up with the world around them. Has everyone forgotten about the world that lies right outside their door? Or has the very nature of reality changed in some way?

Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in 2017, which made me want to take some of the books of his I owned off the shelf and actually read them. He’s a prime Book Sale Author, with plenty of his critically-lauded, best-selling earlier works showing up for $3 in hardcover, $2 in paperback–and if you wait until Sunday, chances are you can find them at a 50% discount. It’s not a diss on his abilities as an author–to have that many books for sale at a flea market, you have to have sold many, many more–but it suggests that, as wonderful as people may find The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, many are not tempted to return to them over and over again.

I have both those books, and, having read neither, I thought it would be fun to get to one of them. But then, in the library, I happened to come across a copy of The Buried Giant. Noticing how it was set in post-Arthurian, pre-Norman England, and also his last novel before his Nobel win, I snapped it up. I love fantasy novels about England at the dawn of its national history, and its timing suggested a great work–was this maybe the novel that pushed Ishiguro over the top for Nobel voters, where Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go had failed? Unfortunately, the novel doesn’t quite live up to that. It’s a fun story, but it also seems to deliberately withhold a lot of the things that make mythical/fantasy novels fun to read in the first place.

The final passages of The Buried Giant contain all the mythic heft it seems to be reaching for throughout. Maybe it’s just a culmination of everything that came before, maybe it’s Ishiguro finally hitting his stride in the final scenes, but it improved the novel for me, which up to that point seemed to be attempting to evoke a fantasy world that seemed vague and haphazard, partly by design (this is a world plagued by an amnesiac mist that has the characters constantly forgetting things), partly out of a misguided attempt to evoke the oldest English texts with a fairy-tale-like simplicity. While the prose is certainly clear and direct enough, it came across as mundane far more than mythic, much as I enjoyed the references to Beowulf and Sir Gawain and other early English texts.

Large parts of the novel are a sort of rhythmic dialogue between an old married couple, and resembles the somewhat compulsive rhythms that longtime couples can fall into. Perhaps Ishiguro does this deliberately, to juxtapose the fantastical setting of his novel with a realistic older couple. I don’t think it’s entirely successful. Nor do I think that Ishiguro creates a particularly compelling world for his characters to inhabit. It’s interesting, how wonderfully many literary writers can evoke a historical past in their prose and descriptions, and how they tend to fall flat when trying to evoke a fantasy or future setting. It’s like they’re embarrassed at the trappings of the genre in which they find themselves–even excellent examples of crossover, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, err on the side of minimalism when creating wholesale fictional worlds.

So while the novel begins intriguingly enough, and inserts details into the background that occasionally stir the interest (the mundance, matter-of-fact existence of ogres and pixies in this world is a nice touch), everything feels slightly inert until the ending, which retroactively gives everything that came before some reflected power.

Interested in reading this? I’m an Amazon Affiliate, meaning that I link products from Amazon, and if anyone clicks those links to buy the product, they pay me a commission. If you’re interested in getting The Buried Giant, just follow the link below:

The Buried Giant (Vintage International)

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This entry was posted on 30 September 2019 by in Elegant Extracts and tagged , , , .
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