Each of Kazuo Ishiguro’s seven novels has a “buried giant”—a monstrous secret that is gradually exhumed, with unsettling consequences. We happen upon a fingernail, then a tooth, an ulna, a rib cage, an occiput, each discovery staggering in itself, until finally we see the full shape of the colossus, appreciate its terribleness, and understand why it was buried in the first place. Ishiguro’s characters tend to bury their secrets beneath heavily reinforced strata of denial, self-delusion, and cognitive dissonance. In An Artist of the Floating World, we come to realize that the narrator, a retired master painter in postwar Japan, is not nearly as revered as he would like to believe, having destroyed his legacy by collaborating with the imperialist regime in the ’30s. The butler Stevens in The Remains of the Day haltingly discloses that his statesman employer was a Nazi sympathizer. Stevens is driven to obsession by his pursuit of dignity, which he cultivates at severe personal cost. But what dignity is available to a man who has devoted his life to comforting a Nazi?
The giant is not always buried within; in Never Let Me Go, it is the revelation that the narrator and her fellow boarding-school students are genetic clones being harvested for their internal organs. Often one buried giant leads to another, larger giant, and then another beneath him—giants all the way down. And in certain novels, like A Pale View of Hills and The Unconsoled, as well as in several of the stories collected in Nocturnes, Ishiguro’s previous book, the mysteries are not entirely resolved; we can see protruding bones but must imagine for ourselves how they connect. Always, however, there is the sense of crucial information being withheld. The revelations lead unerringly to reflection and a profound, deforming sense of regret. This process of exhumation is the distinguishing mark of Ishiguro’s style, which applies the techniques of detective fiction to the mysteries of the heart.