Re-reading The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

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Review by Annabel

Ever since I read and reviewed this novel, back in the spring of 2015 when it was first published – my review for Shiny is here – I planned to revisit it one day; keen to see whether it would strike me as more of a fantasy, historical novel, or even a dystopian one perhaps on a second reading. My wish was granted by the Folio Society choosing it as one of their autumn titles this year in a deluxe slipcased edition illustrated by Jana Heidersdorf and with an introduction by Daniel Kehlmann.

One thing that Kehlmann says in his introduction is that it is ‘a novel best approached without prior knowledge about its characters and storyline’. I’m afraid I disagree with him, having got more out of its many layers on re-reading. However, I do concur when he suggests that new readers skip his introduction and return to it later.

The novel is set in the Dark Ages, after the Romans had left. Arthur and Merlin are gone too. Britons and Saxons must live in proximity, but all is not entirely peaceful, even as the dragon’s breath mists, which they say were raised by Merlin, cause everyone to forget much of the past.

The novel follows an elderly Briton couple, Axl and Beatrice, whose only crime is to age. They decide to leave their troglodytic warren in the side of a hill to travel to live with their son in his village, a few days hence. They will have a series of encounters along the way, including Saxon warrior, Wistan, who has his own agenda, young Edwin who was said to have been bitten by ogres and thus is not safe in his own village, and notably old Sir Gawain who seeks to slay the dragon Querig. There will also be monks, children living in the forest, and … the boatman, of whom I shall say no more.

You can read a little more about the narrative in my original review, but as I carry on to discuss this edition’s rather striking illustrative theme by Jana Heidersdorf, I can’t avoid discussing the historical context a little, which you may think is a spoiler. If so, just jump down to below the last illustration.

On this re-read, I was much less concerned with the narrative drive of the various quests of Axl, Beatrice and their various travelling companions, than with the effect of the mist, and what it was hiding. This is also something that the illustrator has suffused all the illustrations with, but the book’s slipcase and boards in particular. The slipcase is green with swirling gold lines resembling contours over the land and sky, continuing onto the end papers; Sir Gawain crosses in front of the hill, Axl, Beatrice, Wistan and Edwin follow on the back. But pull the book from the slipcase and a rather different version of the same world is revealed, war-torn with weapons half buried, embossed into the red boards, and a giant skull inside the hill. It’s quite thought-provoking and I wonder what those new to the novel and its historical setting will make of it.

It’s generally agreed that the Battle of Badon happened in the late 5th or early 6th century. The cleric Gildas, who wrote in the 9th C, places Arthur there as a commander of the Britons fighting the Saxons. There was little room for chivalric romance in the real world, although Ishiguro’s Gawain does provide a continuum for its last vestiges. Little wonder that Merlin decided to befuddle the land to prevent the Saxons from totally overrunning it.

The big question is, if the mists lift and everyone’s collective forgetfulness begins to dissipate and they recover their memories, will they like what they find? As they progress on their journey, Axl and Beatrice suffer confusing and fleeting glimpses into their past: they can’t remember their son’s visage, but Gawain and Wistan may have encountered Axl before. But he’s such a loving, calm man, surely he couldn’t have been a warrior?

Overall, I don’t think I changed my original view that this novel is more of a fable told with fantasy and historical elements to illustrate the effects of history, whenever the time. It was certainly a book that stands up to re-reading. As always, it was a pleasure to read this novel from a Folio Society edition (I have their previous reprints of Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go on my shelves already). The colour plates are complemented by some monochrome ones at the beginning of each part of the book. It’s a superbly produced volume as always, and Folio Society editions do make splendid gifts…

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Annabel is a co-founder and editor of Shiny New Books.

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant (Folio, 2023). 320pp., hardback.

The Folio Society’s edition of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, introduced by Daniel Kehlmann and illustrated by Jana Heidersdorf is exclusively available from foliosociety.com

2 comments

  1. When I read the book I found it too frustrating and disorienting to be in such a fog as to what was “real” and what was imaginary or delusion. I know I should be postmodern and not expect a story to offer me reality, but I guess I have a hard time losing that habit.

    It’s interesting to choose a book for illustration that is so much about that lack of certainty about what is real. When something is pinned down in an illustration it makes it more concrete than in the text. I was never sure if the monsters were supposed to be real, for example. The contrast of the slipcase and binding design seems to gesture at the way different people see different things, though.

    1. I’m generally not good with vagueness, but being an Arthurian nut, I was able to put it in context. On first reading, I was convinced the monsters weren’t real, on re-reading I went with the flow and if the characters thought they were real so did I. The slipcase and cover do make the reality under the mist a bit obvious though, a bit of a spoiler in a way. Annabel

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