"The Buried Giant" by Kazuo Ishiguro, Knopf, $26.95
In "The Buried Giant," Kazuo Ishiguro's strange new novel, Sir Gawain -- yes, that one, one of King Arthur's knights -- extols his requirements for a good warrior: "Good footwork, sound strategy, calm courage," he says. "And that little wildness makes a warrior hard to predict." These same qualities can make a good novel: agile writing, an elegant plot, courage to write the difficult or transgressive and, of course, that "little wildness" that can make a book stand out.
As a longtime fan of Ishiguro, I wanted "The Buried Giant" so badly to have those qualities. But it does not.
Ishiguro, who was born in Nagasaki but has lived in England since he was 5, is a master novelist. His last work, the sublime "Never Let Me Go," was a brave dive into sci-fi, taking place at a mysterious boarding school in England's near future and proving to be emotionally draining in the way the genre often struggles to be. His other most famous work, "The Remains of the Day," was a brilliant exploration of aristocratic repression using an unreliable -- if sympathetic -- narrator. Other novels have been set in his native Japan and in continental Europe; if there is anything consistent about his work, it is that it always surprises.
"The Buried Giant," a fabulist tale set in the Early Middle Ages, may be his biggest surprise, however. It takes place in an England filled with ogres and at least one dragon, years after King Arthur's demise. Saxons and Britons continue to be at odds. Britons Axl and Beatrice, an older couple, elect to take a journey from their small village to attempt to find their son. Because of a mist that shrouds the countryside, their memories are sketchy, and so neither Axl nor Beatrice know exactly why their son is gone or how they will find him. Along the way, they run into Wistan, a mysterious Saxon warrior, and Sir Gawain, among other characters.
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It could be described as Ishiguro's version of a "Beowulf," although the novel constantly -- and cleverly -- subverts the general ideas of the hero's quest and even, in the end, the monster.
While the novel is concerned mostly with remembering and forgetting, it explores these ideas haphazardly, lacking the elegance and subtlety that made "Never Let Me Go" so affecting. The writing is often smooth ("Axl could see in fine detail the damaged, coarsened wood, and the underside of the gunwale, where a row of tiny icicles hung like candlewax…") but the themes and ideas are awkward and forced, a very un-Ishiguro-like feeling. The dialogue is stilted and overly formal; though obviously an intentional move by the author, its insistence on formality causes one to wake from the dream the novel is attempting to weave.
Perhaps "The Buried Giant" will grow with age, or perhaps it was simply too surprising for this reviewer, but for now it feels like a failed experiment.
"[W]ithout our memories," Beatrice wonders at one point, "there’s nothing for it but for our love to fade and die." A priest they meet along the way disagrees: "Is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?" he asks. Axl and Beatrice's quixotic quest is essentially one of remembering, and of rediscovering the past -- no matter the consequences.