When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro: A review

 

This book was published in 2000 and all the reading world except for me probably read it then. I'm only twenty-two years late to the party, but never mind; the story still seems fresh and "of the moment" even though it begins in 1923.

This is a sort of detective story that isn't really a detective story. It starts in the early twentieth century with a mystery, the suspicious disappearance from their home in the International Settlement of Shanghai of Christopher Banks' parents. First his father and then his mother disappear and nine-year-old Christopher is left an orphan. Christopher is then sent "home" to an aunt in England. It is a home he had never seen. He's never been to England before.

His parents never turn up and he grows up in his aunt's home and becomes - perhaps not surprisingly - a detective. His urge to learn what happened to his parents is sublimated in his work of finding missing persons and solving crimes. He becomes a detective of some renown as he solves several big cases.

Still, the disappearance of his parents remains a mystery that haunts him. Christopher's mother had been an outspoken critic of the opium trade in Shanghai and Christopher had always believed that her criticism was somehow responsible for their disappearance. The grown-up Christopher sees his career as a detective as preparation to follow the trail of their disappearance and try to find out what happened to them. But by the time he is ready to begin searching in his early 30s, the Sino-Japanese War breaks out in 1937.

Christopher comes to believe that his parents' disappearance and the beginning of the war are somehow related. He believes that they had been trapped in Shanghai for all the years of their absence and that their situation is the cause of the struggle. It is both a risible and a tragic delusion, but he determines to look for them in the landscape of war. 

This story is told to us by Christopher in a straightforward and detached narrative. For someone whose career has demanded an ability to rigorously examine details and to objectively analyze them, his psychological state seems to hinge on his ability to maintain his self-deception that his parents' disappearance is a factor in the beginning of the war.

His search takes him through some of the worst of the fighting. There are scenes of horror. But then in the midst of the horror, Christopher chances to meet an old friend from his childhood. His Japanese friend is now involved in the war. Their meeting seems entirely implausible but a necessary component of the arc of the story.

Once again we have to deal with an unreliable narrator in Christopher. How much of his narrative is the truth and how much is his wishful thinking? Ishiguro continues with his favorite theme of memory and how it relates to our sense of self. How well, after all, do we really know ourselves? How clearly are we able to see and judge events around us? Are our life experiences and their sometimes traumatic effect not always the prism through which we will view the world? And does that prism inevitably skew our understanding of events? Are we not all, in Ishiguro's telling, "orphans" whose lives can never truly be our own? It is a bleak view of the world but not necessarily a wrong one.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Comments

  1. The story sounds rather intriguing, sorry you did not enjoy it more. I do like unreliable narrators; it works really well in certain kinds of stories.

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    1. It was intriguing and well-written - Ishiguro, after all! - and I struggled with how to rate it. I could easily have rated it higher, but ultimately the resolution of the story was rather unsatisfactory for me. And, as for unreliable narrators, they are everywhere these days. Writers really seem in love with the idea of them and almost every novel I pick up has one. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but one has to wonder when some brave writer might break the trend and take us in the opposite direction.

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  2. I've only ever read Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, which I really liked, so I don't know why I haven't read any of his other books. I still really want to read Klara and the Sun. Hopefully this summer. :)

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    1. I think "Klara and the Sun" is probably my favorite. I loved that book! But it is very closely followed by "Remains of the Day." In fact, it is really hard to choose between them. He is such a good writer.

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  3. I'm not always a fan of the unreliable narrator books, but when its done well its so good! :)

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  4. I haven't read this one. I am not sure if I consciously skipped it or if I just missed hearing about it. After reading your thoughts, I think I will now consciously skip it.

    I do love Klara and the Sun and Remains of the Day.

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  5. I am glad you reviewed this one. I have not read it yet, though I've read his 3 most famous novels. Perhaps I will try his novel The Buried Giant next. Some of his plots seem pretty outlandish.

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    1. He has a very vivid and original imagination. "Outlandish" might be another appropriate adjective.

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