Memories are a tricky thing. They can haunt in times of happiness and fortify in times of despair; they return over and over again when they are unwelcome, yet they often prove elusive when they are searched for the hardest. Memory and its various offspring—revenge, forgiveness, prejudice, hatred—lie at the heart of Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, “The Buried Giant.” Although at times tiresome in its stilted dialogue and simplistic characters, “The Buried Giant” is nonetheless a moving parable of remembrance, loss, and the resilience of love.
From the first page of “The Buried Giant,” Ishiguro’s ability to build vivid, self-contained landscapes is clear. The novel is set in a semi-historical, semi-mythical English landscape where ogres roam freely, pixies and sprites wreak mischief, and a she-dragon named Querig hides out in the highlands. In this England, the reign of King Arthur has recently come to an end, and along with it the violence between Britons and Saxons. A wary peace prevails, yet it is a false one built largely upon the mist of forgetfulness that hangs over the land. People’s memories dissolve into a fog after weeks, days, or even hours; they live in a content, yet ultimately hollow, state. Little resentment between Saxons and Britons survives, because the terrible, bloody deeds of the past have been buried under a layer of collective forgetting. Ishiguro thus raises a compelling point, forcing the reader to consider whether a safe, peaceful life is worth the loss of memory and identity.
Much of Ishiguro’s story follows the rough outlines of a fairy tale: It follows an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, as they set off to find the long-lost son they hardly remember. Along the way, they encounter several other mysterious figures and are embroiled in a greater drama centering around the dragon Querig. Standard fare, yet a second, more intriguing plot runs through “The Buried Giant.” Distraught widows, half-dead and half-alive, wander the countryside, speaking of a boatman who promised to ferry them and their husbands to a mystical island. These women have been left behind; the boatman took their husbands across but refused to return for them. Axl and Beatrice fear that they, too, will be separated in this way. Convinced that the mist of forgetfulness will hinder their safe passage, they devote themselves to finding its undoing. Both plots are skillfully executed; they wind neatly around one another and lend each other strength and forward motion.
Ishiguro’s greatest strength is his ability to move slowly through a plotline. Reading “The Buried Giant” feels like watching a master puppeteer, who, having constructed a magnificent diorama, reveals it by methodically opening a series of tiny windows in the front of the set. At no point does Ishiguro show the reader something that he doesn’t intend to; there is no bleeding between sections or cumbersome inclusion of less-than-vital information. The deliberate pacing and absolute control that Ishiguro displays in this novel are those of a storyteller at his peak.
However, “The Buried Giant” is not without its flaws. The story is heavily allegorical, and as often happens in such stories, the characters tend to seem less like people than archetypes, two-dimensional cutouts being moved around a stage to satisfy necessary plot points. The personalities of the minor characters are clichéd and rather bland: the battle-hardened warrior, the eager apprentice, the aging, loyal knight. Yet it is Axl and Beatrice, the story’s main figures, who are most shortchanged. Although there is nothing overtly wrong with Ishiguro’s depictions of them, there just isn’t anything particularly substantial or interesting. They move through the story as a single unit, always in tandem; Ishiguro thus sacrifices a chance to give his central characters more depth, which he could have done by allowing them to act as individuals.
The characters’ limited scope can often lead to dull moments within the story, yet the dullness of the language itself is on a whole new level of tedium. The novel has few moments of authorial exposition and relies instead on dialogue between characters to drive the plot forward. This technique would normally be harmless, yet in “The Buried Giant” Ishiguro takes on a cutesy, highly-affected lexicon that feels stilted and false. His contrived language not only detracts from the story’s real gravity but is also simply annoying. Axl and Beatrice refer to one another as “husband” and “princess,” respectively, virtually every time they speak to one another, so that a typical moment of dialogue runs thus: “‘Good morning, husband,’ she said eventually. ‘I’m glad to see the spirits chose not to take you away as I slept.’ ‘Princess, there’s something I want to talk about.’ ‘What is it you have to say, Axl, and before I’ve had time to rub the sleep from my eyes?’” Extrapolate this exchange to over 300 pages and the language soon turns from novel and appealing to purely kitschy.
“The Buried Giant” takes several more steps down the path of fantasy-fable that Ishiguro first tread in “Never Let Me Go.” Yet, whereas the story of “Never Let Me Go” took precedence over its message, “The Buried Giant” is first and foremost an allegory. The characters suffer as a result, but Ishiguro’s ultimate message is powerful and resonant enough that his book still merits a read. The questions Ishiguro poses are difficult but compelling: Is it preferable to live in a state of blissful ignorance, shielded from the cruel vagaries of the world? Is it right to seek happiness, even when it comes at the cost of awareness? Or is it imperative to confront past injustices, to demand consciousness and truth, even when that truth brings with it the possibility of a terrible reckoning? In this subtle morality tale, it is up to the reader to decide.
—Staff writer Lien E. Le can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.