THERE'S a strangely alluring blandness to the prose of British writer Kazuo Ishiguro—a flat, tepid quality that lends itself neatly to the themes of his novels: self-deception, regret, lost love, faded youth.
Ishiguro's latest, The Buried Giant, is written as blandly as the best of his books, but in failing to achieve any sustained charm or allure, it ultimately disappoints. Set in post-Arthurian Britain at the onset of the Dark Ages, The Buried Giant follows an old married couple, Axl and Beatrice, who have been rendered amnesiac by a mist that "covers all memories, the bad as well as the good." They're desperate to remember some "unnamed loss" at the center of their lives, which they think may have to do with a son they can barely remember. "I'm wondering if without our memories," Beatrice says, "there's nothing for it but for our love to fade and die."
Axl and Beatrice embark on a journey to reclaim their past and find their long-lost son. They're joined by a young boy with a mysterious wound, an enigmatic Saxon warrior, and an elderly, punch-drunk Sir Gawain on a never-ending quest to slay a she-dragon plaguing the land. The ruined world they travel through, far removed from the glory of the Romans and Arthur, is haunted with murderous pixies, ogres, and other "everyday hazards."
If all of this sounds rather, well, formulaic, it's because Ishiguro is settling himself in a world of Arthurian cliché and familiarity. He's worked in genre before, yet you keep expecting him to play around with the conventions of Arthurian romance, or at least subvert our expectations a bit. But he never does. And ultimately, the 336 melancholic pages of The Buried Giant start to feel like a trudge.
One interesting aspect: You start to wonder if the mist is perhaps some commentary on the War on Terror, or Israel and Palestine. The Britain of the novel is reeling from atrocities committed during the war between Arthur and the Saxons, but through the mist of forgetfulness, the drums of war beat again, louder, with a vengeance.
This idea of cyclical, accelerating violence is reminiscent of Ishiguro's previous novel, Never Let Me Go, and its vision of "a new world coming rapidly... a harsh, cruel world." But the mist, like the rest of the novel, never fully takes off. And even though Ishiguro has always been an unabashedly unhip writer, The Buried Giant feels too placid, tedious, workmanlike, and fundamentally empty to be ranked among his best work.