RAD Book Club review: The Buried Giant

09 Mar 2016

We started the meeting with a recap of the plot as many people had only hazy recollections of the novel, were confused as to what it was about, or disliked it so much they hadn’t finished reading it.

The main characters are Axl and Beatrice, an old, married couple who live in mythical Britain during the Dark Ages. They seem a loving and devoted couple despite – or maybe because of – a mysterious fog which has descended on the land rendering the people incapable of remembering events of even the recent past. When the couple suddenly believe that they have a son, they set out to visit him – although they cannot remember where he lives so have no idea where they are going. On their journey they become involved in a quest to save the land from the mist, despite being torn between wanting it to lift so that they can share memories of the happy times that they have together, and fear that unhappy memories are buried in their past. The implications for their relationship once the mist is lifted mirror the wider moral and political implications for Britain should its people remember the terrible events of the past.

We spent some time trying to unravel the meaning of the many metaphors in the text. All agreed that the boatman was the ferryman, featured in the myths of many cultures, transporting the dying across the river that separates the living from the dead. The mist could represent the way in which individuals or an entire society might choose to forget, ignore or deny events due to guilt or regret. We liked one member’s thoughts about the incident in which Axl and Beatrice have their candle taken away from them because their unsteady old hands present a fire-hazard. It was suggested that this showed the elderly being marginalised in a society where survival depends on physical labour; the collective amnesia means they cannot even offer the ‘wisdom’ of their years. But what does the rabbit represent? Or the pixies? Even the title is a metaphor! So much symbolism had us questioning whether anything could be taken at face value and found us looking for hidden meaning in absolutely everything.

The group questioned whether we had little recall of the plot and felt indifferent towards characters because they were badly written, or due to a deliberate ploy of the author’s. We certainly felt as if we were stumbling around not knowing what was real or where we were going. The consensus was that, intentional or not, it did not make for enjoyable or fulfilling reading. Some blamed their lack of interest on Ishiguru’s signature flat, understated style – even while writing about ogres and dragons – while use of the speaking style and tropes of Arthurian legends reminded more than one of us of Monty Python’s Black Knight. Most disliked the jarring changes of voice and were left dissatisfied that there was no resolution to the narrative. Ultimately, we felt that the novel’s purpose had become lost in its own fog and we were too disorientated to fight our way through it.