Kazuo Ishiguro has made a career of the unexpected. His best-known novel, 1989's Man Booker-winning "The Remains of the Day," is narrated by an English butler looking back on the love he let elude him on a country estate in the years leading to World War II. "When We Were Orphans" (2000) comes framed as a detective novel, while "Never Let Me Go" (2005) appropriates some of the tropes of science fiction to tell the story of a boarding school where clones are raised for body parts.
What these books share is a fascination with memory, identity, with the tension between obligation and desire. "I'm wondering," an elderly woman named Beatrice says in Ishiguro's new novel "The Buried Giant," "if without our memories, there's nothing for it but for our love to fade and die."
Beatrice is one of the central figures in "The Buried Giant," which takes place in an ancient England, within living recollection of King Arthur's reign. As the book begins, she and her aged husband, Axl, set out in search of their son, who left them years before. "I would say this couple lived an isolated life," Ishiguro writes, establishing a frame, "but in those days few were 'isolated' in any sense we would understand. For warmth and protection, the villagers lived in shelters, many of them dug deep into the hillside, connected one to the other by underground passages and covered corridors."
This is an interesting but problematic passage, suggesting the potential of "The Buried Giant" and also the failings it cannot, finally, overcome. First, who is that first-person narrator, the "I" who speaks to us directly? When and where is this voice writing from? The answer, revealed in the novel's final pages, is both confusing and unsatisfying, not to mention inconsistent, a surprising structural flaw.
Then, there's the tone of exposition, of a story explicated rather than told. Certainly, "The Buried Giant" requires explanation, its world so different from the one we occupy. At the same time, this leaves the narrative at a peculiar distance, one Ishiguro never overcomes. Again and again, his characters clarify for one another: not just the social dynamics — villages of Saxons and Britons, living under a cloud of forgetting — but also the plot.
One favored device is to have Axl or another figure comment about what has happened, using dialogue to propel the narrative. "You read it well, Master Wistan, and I shudder at what you show me," Axl tells a Saxon warrior, after the latter suggests that the monastery in which they've sought shelter was likely once a fort. There's a tension to such a revelation, but it is undercut by the secondhand approach.
This raises a question about Ishiguro's inspiration, his intentions for the book. On the one hand, he remains, as he has often been, compelled by questions of love, commitment, deception — a deception that is not always external but also grows within. The cloud of forgetting here is real, the result of a spell cast on a dragon named Querig, whose exhalations provoke a collective state of somnolence. And yet, the truest implications have to do with the characters' apprehension about what will emerge once the spell is removed.
"I've said it before, Axl," Beatrice tells her husband. "… [T]here's a part of me that fears the mist's fading." He seeks to reassure her, but as his memories return in bits and pieces, he too begins to fear what he will discover about his past. Who was he before he fell into a sort of blankness? Will he be able to live with all that he has done?
This is complicated by the presence of Wistan, with whom he develops a connection, and the emergence of Sir Gawain (yes, that Sir Gawain), both of whom are after the dragon also, for deep and hidden reasons of their own.
In the hands of, say, T.H. White or George R.R. Martin, this could be (has been) a vivid set of conflicts, played out on an epic stage. "The Buried Giant," though, is too thin, too narrow in its vision, to achieve that sort of scope. Rather, it feels constrained, not fully imagined, as if the distance were not only in the narrative but also in the author himself.
Partly, it's that the novel is claustrophobic, with just a handful of articulated characters — Axl, Beatrice, Gawain, Wistan and Wistan's protégé, a Saxon boy named Edwin. Partly, it's because the forgetting, the amnesia, removes a sense of history, personal or otherwise. This is mitigated in the final chapters, but by then it is too late.
In the main, "The Buried Giant" involves people with no real sense of their own past wandering through a landscape with no real sense of its own past, with consequences that don't seem dire or dangerous enough, which means that nothing, really, is at stake.
This is not to say that the book lacks anything to merit our attention: The era of Arthur remains a rich source of legend and adventure, while the relationship between Axl and Beatrice is often moving, a portrait of love in the shadow of old age.
"It would be the saddest thing to me, princess," he tells her. "To walk separately from you, when the ground will let us go as we always did." Yet even that is not enough to bring this misbegotten novel to life.
The Buried Giant
Alfred A. Knopf: 318 pp., $26.95