For a book with an actual dragon, The Buried Giant is pretty chill.
Axl and Beatrice—”perhaps these were not their exact or full names, but for ease, this is how we will refer to them”—are an elderly married couple in post-Arthurian Britain, or rather a version of that time and place in which no one can remember anything for more than a few hours. Inspired by vague memories of their son, A&B set off to another village to find him and, as is wont to happen when one goes on journeys in post-Arthurian Britain, are confronted by a series of characters and challenges along the way (including but not limited to: a warrior, a knight, a dragon and a bunch of creepy old ladies). As they travel across land belonging to both Saxons and Britons—formerly warring factions since turned peaceful neighbors—Axl and Beatrice reflect on their lives together and vie to discover things forgotten.
In the Quest genre, TBG follows familiar patterns: misunderstood characters travel from their homes in pursuit of [insert maguffin here], and through a series of distracting but meaningful encounters discover truths that change their perception of themselves, reality or both. These journeys—see: Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland—are of course stand-ins for life itself, whose maguffin is a mix of happiness and meaning and whose distracting but influential encounters are hard to spot amid all the wearables and Bud Light ads. Seriously, if I saw Gollum reading a newspaper on the subway at rush hour I’m not sure I would bat an eye, let alone absorb a life lesson.
But The Buried Giant also diverts from its questy predecessors. For one, it’s never particularly thrilling, minus a few creepy scenes and a handful of duels that are one part Gladiator, three parts Monty Python. And while the elegant but stilted language is reminiscent of Camelot-era speech, it, combined with the vagueness of the circumstances, can make the whole book seem a little young adult. That dreamlike vagueness, too, can be aggravating, making it hard to discern which of the novel’s magical moments are imbued with deeper meaning versus just…magical.
All that said, as allegorical reference points go, memory is a fascinating foundation. While TBG contains an element of predestination—a dystopian tenet that appears in books like The Handmaid’s Tale and Ishiguro’s sixth novel, Never Let Me Go—it is much more about the importance of the past and the clarity of our perception of it. As they consider the plague of forgetfulness, Axl and Beatrice ask us to consider how important memory is, to weigh its pros and cons and to think through the possibilities of a world where memories are de-emphasized in a fuzzy non-authoritarian sort of way. Would our relationships last longer? Would our wars end sooner? Would they never begin in the first place? Would our lives be better if we couldn’t hold grudges or remember offenses or hold on to preconceptions, even if it meant we weren’t always held accountable either?
Allegories have the power to be transformative, enlightening even. They can expose human nature by viewing it through the lens of non-humans, as in Animal Farm, or highlight the folly of adulthood via the machinations of children, like with Lord of the Flies. When they’re good, allegories transcend the limitations of parables and impart meaning without sacrificing the sophistication of fully developed characters or plots. When they’re bad, it’s rarely for being too subtle—a cringe-worthy allegory tends to hit you over the head with whatever it’s trying to say.
The Buried Giant, by contrast, is almost too discreet, too nuanced; it presents itself as a bit of a cosmic shrug. Ishiguro’s novel doesn’t dig into memory the way Blindness did with sight, or Children of Men with procreation. Or even as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind did with a more specific kind of memory. Instead, TBG almost suffers for beginning at the end, which is to say that…Axl and Beatrice are fine. Sure, they’re generally crotchety and can’t remember much, but that’s normal, right? They’re old. They’re still in love; they’ve got their health. They seem okay. Not, of course, that contented outward appearances mean moral quandaries aren’t brewing beneath the surface (see: every dystopian novel ever)—just that, in this book at least, we’re not easily made to understand what those moral quandaries are, or how much we should care about them.
Ishiguro has created in The Buried Giant a deft and graceful addition to the journey genre, with bountiful allusions to mythology and philosophy that I’m probably grossly underplaying and woefully under-appreciating. TBG is a beautiful story (in a physically beautiful hardcover), the kind of thing you could read to your kids before bed each night. But the novel never quite elevates itself, never becomes more than the sum of its parts. It never quite commits to being funny, or thrilling, or inspiring, or mysterious, and so instead is a bit of all of those things, but none with much conviction. The Buried Giant is a pretty story, beautifully told, but it left me wanting a little more je ne sais quoi in my quest.
TITLE: The Buried Giant
AUTHOR: Kazuo Ishiguro
PAGES: 336 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: Never Let Me Go, The Remains of the Day
SORTA LIKE: Alice in Wonderland in Camelot
FIRST LINE: “You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated.”