The Buried Giant
By Kazuo Ishiguro
Knopf. 320 pp. $26.95
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Reviewed by Kevin Grauke
Memory, especially how it affects both love and loss, has long been a motif of Kazuo Ishiguro's fiction, from his Booker-winning masterpiece The Remains of the Day (1989) to his last novel, the melancholy, dystopian Never Let Me Go (2005). The novel at hand, The Buried Giant, his first in 10 years, is similarly preoccupied; however, it will likely startle his fans considerably.
The reason? It's a fantasy novel. While Never Let Me Go flirted with science fiction, it presented a world easy to imagine as possible, if unlikely (let's hope, at least). The Buried Giant, on the other hand, portrays a thoroughly fanciful world inhabited by pixies, ogres, and dragons.
As are almost all of his novels, The Buried Giant is set in England. But this is not an England any of us would recognize. This is an England after the Romans have left but before any of the Saxon or Norman kings have come to power. Arthur is dead, but his nephew, Gawain, still rides about on a steed.
The novel focuses on two elderly Britons, Axl and Beatrice, on a journey to visit their son, whom they have not seen in a long time. Along the way, they encounter Master Wistan, a Saxon warrior on a mission; and Edwin, an injured Saxon boy in search of his mother. Along with Gawain, these four end up traveling together once they find they share certain goals.
Central to all of their concerns is Querig, a she-dragon. Although she rarely shows herself, she holds the land in her sway.
Unless you're already an enthusiastic reader of fantasy fiction, this summary may not pique your interest. What distinguish Ishiguro's take on the genre, however, is his exploration of how our perception of the past forges our identities, our relationships, and our notions of community.
Axl and Beatrice have become aware that they and everyone around them are having trouble remembering both the distant and the recent past. Most troubling is their inability to recall important things, such as why their son left. This "mist of forgetfulness," as they name it, leads them to contemplate the essence of their love for each other. To Axl, Beatrice remarks, "I'm wondering if without our memories, there's nothing . . . but for our love to fade and die."
But fans who hope The Buried Giant will give them what Ishiguro usually gives them - elegant portraits of complex characters brought to life by a nearly incomparable melding of language and narration - will be disappointed. The novel is too caught up in the fantasy genre. There are far too many lines of wooden dialogue such as this, said by Edwin to Master Wistan:
"I'm perfectly well, warrior, yet stand before you in shame. I'm a poor comrade to you, sleeping while you fought. Curse me and banish me from your sight, for it'll be a thing well earned."
A certain amount of this sort of talk might be excusable (at least early on). Such stilted language has come to be associated with tales of knights and dragons. But it never relents, and it quickly grows very tedious, as do the flat characters and the plot's rather predictable machinations and obfuscations. Rather than reimagining the tired conventions and traditions of the fantasy genre, Ishiguro mostly abides by them.
There are a few interesting themes, such as the role of forgetfulness in healing from trauma, for both individuals and communities. But these are mired in a novel that reads as if it were written by an author with merely a third of the artistry and imagination we have come to expect of Kazuo Ishiguro. Let's hope The Buried Giant is merely a brief detour that, for whatever reason, he simply could not prevent himself from exploring.
7:30 p.m. March 20 at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St.
Tickets: $15, $7 students.
Information: 215-567-4341 or www.freelibrary.org/authoreventsEndText