Learning to read Kazuo Ishiguro

Recently I’ve started to read The Buried Giant, another novel that I thought might make the cut for next week’s Goldsmiths Prize shortlist. Reading Kazuo Ishiguro has very much been a learning process for me, and one that’s been documented on the blog – so I thought I’d take a look back…

NocturnesThe first Ishiguro book that I read was his novella collection, Nocturnes, shortly after its publication in 2009. Reading my review back now makes me wince – not because I didn’t get along with the book, but because I’m not happy with how the review turned out. For one thing, it’s snarkier than I would generally write – and snark, fun though it may be, is rarely conducive to careful thought. Sure enough, I did something that I now hate to see in discussion of books: I came up against something unexpected, and dismissed it out of hand without really thinking about it. I put my own terms of engagement ahead of the book’s.

I was under the assumption at the time that Ishiguro was a writer of transparent realism, but now I’m not so sure. And that means I’m on shaky ground treating something of his as ‘unrealistic’, especially without stopping to think what that means, and why the fiction might be that way. This is not to say that I would inevitably like Nocturnes more if I read it now; but I do think there was something fundamental that I didn’t (couldn’t?) appreciate about it.


At the time I wasn’t especially keen to read Ishiguro again, and it took a few years before I felt the time was right. I went for The Remains of the Day (1989), and was clearly much more receptive to what Ishiguro was doing. Yet I wonder if I didn’t still miss something. My review of Remains is framed as saying, “I can see the same techniques here as I did in Nocturnes, but in this book they work.” In other words, I was still reading from that assumption of transparent realism. Now, granted, transparent realism is what the novel looks like; and I think it’s fair to say that Ishiguro’s fiction has a ‘default’ voice. But, still…

I gather that The Buried Giant is a little different from Ishiguro’s work, and certainly it has garnered a variety of puzzled reactions, which is partly what leads me to suspect that there may be some thread in his writing that I’ve not yet appreciated. Perhaps what I need to do is step back and consider the individual writer – to see his books as Kazuo Ishiguro books first and foremost.

Book details (Foyles affiliate links)

The Buried Giant (2015) by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber & Faber hardback

Nocturnes (2009) by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber & Faber paperback

The Remains of the Day (1989) by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber & Faber paperback


  1. First, thanks for the thumbs up about the Goldsmith Prize – I’ll have to watch for it.

    Next, it’s interesting to watch someone just getting into Ishiguro – I’ve been reading his work since The Remains of the Day although went back for Artist of the Floating World. I very much enjoyed Nocturnes but I’d been following Ishiguro’s changes for awhile.

    Yes, I think Ishiguro’s writing has changed (changes) and he’s very uneven. – You’re right about “Remains of the Day” and fairly transparent realism – albeit a probably unreliable narrator. But that was not certainly not true of “The Unconsoled” (bizarre, experimental?) or “When We Were Orphans” (some fantasy). “Never Let Me Go” is dystopian and rather unclassifiable – sci-fi? horror? other?

    “Nocturnes” had some less than “realistic” aspects – it was dreamy in somewhat the way Murakami is dreamy – not quite real.

    The new one, “The Buried Giant,” seems to be following Ishiguro’s trend toward more and more fantastical – this time the theme(s) seem to be more directly addressed. I think once again he’s confused some of his readers and reviewers.

    I’m going to continue to read Ishiguro not necessarily because I so enjoy each book but more because I’m very interested in where he’ll go next.

    Happy reading! 🙂

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Becky. I should say that I don’t mean ‘realist’ in the sense of ‘the opposite to fantasy’, but more as unambiguously reflecting some sort of reality. And now I’m starting to appreciate just how much of that kind of ambiguity there is in Ishiguro’s work.

      I like that idea of reading an author because you’re interested in where they’ll go next. Sometimes I feel as though I’d rather have that that knowing an author’s next book will be enjoyable but safe.

      I don’t know if you’ve seen, but the Goldsmiths shortlist has been announced; I did a post about it here.

  2. I’m amazed at Ishiguro’s variety of style. I hate The Remains of the Day, but probably need to revisit. I loved very much Never Let me Go and The Buried Giant, that I just listened to. The next one I want to read by him is An Artist of the Floating World

    • Never Let Me Go was going to be the next Ishiguro I read after Remains, but I ended up going for The Buried Giant instead. I think I might leave NLMG for the time being now, and go back to some of his earlier work.

  3. I must have missed Nocturne, but I’ve read and liked most of the others, and am looking forward to The Buried Giant.
    But I had to chuckle about wincing over old reviews, some of mine are so cringe-worthy I’ve been tempted to do a spring-cleaning and delete ’em.
    But as the title of your blog post implies, reading is a learning process, and I think it’s good for a blog to show the blogger’s development as a reader. Even if *gulp* it’s a bit embarrassing sometimes!

    • I think you’re right, Lisa – it is best to leave up old stuff, however wrong-headed it seems now. It helps us see our evolution as readers, and who knows what we might wince over in the future?

  4. I can highly recommend An Artist of the Floating World. Very interesting companion piece to The Remains of the Day. The only one of his I just couldn’t read was The Unconsoled. It was like being trapped in an endless nightmare. I’ve read that he consciously set out there to do something very different from his earlier work, and it certainly is.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

© 2024 David's Book World

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑