BOOK REVIEWS

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

“I had always understood, of course, that the task of rooting out evil in its most devious forms, often just when it is about to go unchecked, is a crucial and solemn undertaking.”

As much as it pains me to admit this…I didn’t particularly care for this novel. While it is written in Kazuo Ishiguro’s trademark prose, which is both eloquent and introspective, the more I read and the less invested I felt in the story and in particular in Christopher Banks, our narrator and protagonist. It saddens me not to have enjoyed When We Were Orphans as I consider Ishiguro to be an excellent writer and certainly a favourite of mine. Then again, Ishiguro himself said that “It’s not my best book”. Still, while I wasn’t expecting When We Were Orphans to be as poignant as
The Remains of Day or Never Let Me Go, I hoped that I would at least find it to be an engaging read.
At first I was intrigued by the narrative. Although Christopher is a famous detective his investigations are only alluded to. This itself is very unusual and it subverts the reader’s expectations. Usually, when a book revolves around a detective chances are that whatever case(s) they are working on will be a central part of the story. Here instead Christopher’s job is treated like any other job. It is Christopher himself who is a mystery. Ishiguro introduces us to certain aspects of his life, for example at first we read many scenes in which he is socialising at glitzy parties or events. The story begins in the 1930s England and Christopher is slowly making a name for himself. We learn that he is an orphan and that he grew up in the International Settlement of Shanghai. As with other novels by Ishiguro our narrator finds himself recollecting a certain period of his life, in this case is childhood. He reconsiders figures and scenes from his past, scrutinizing and questioning his own memories, re-experiencing specific episodes both through the uncomprehending eyes of a child and through his newly acquired adult perspective.
Scenes from his past are interspersed throughout Christopher’s narrative. In the present he meets Sarah, a young woman who also happens to be an orphan. Sarah seems intent on upward social mobility or so we can assume given that she expresses a wish to marry someone of importance. We also learn more of Christopher’s circumstances.
Throughout his careful examination of his past Christopher remains a somewhat remote and cautious narrator. Usually I find cold or detached narrators to be right up my street (such as with Brontë and Kincaid’s Lucys) but Christopher’s opaqueness seemed a bit contrived at times. He remains a half-formed thing for much of his narrative. For instance, when he is thinking of childhood it is Akira who steals ‘the sh0w’. Child-Christopher remains an amorphous figure, who possesses no discernible traits.
Still, I appreciated the way he considers the limitations of memory, how certain events are coloured by later ones, how some incidents will always remain unclear.
What seems to drive his remembrance is the loss of his parents (the exact nature of which we learn quite late in the narrative). The second half of the novel sees Christopher back in Shanghai and here things take on a hazy quality. While in the first half there are many time skips, I never felt that I was missing out on any vital scene. Once Christopher is Shanghai however I started to feel mildly annoyed by how many things happened off page. Nothing is explained to us, we are simply made to go along with Christopher and his outlandish plans. He finds himself in the midst of the Second Sino-Japanese War and kind of loses his marbles. He makes foolish decisions and behaves in an abhorrent fashion. I could not for the life of me believe that he felt any particular strong feelings for Sarah. During his earlier reminiscence I did not feel his grief or anguish when he considered his parents. And yet, all of a sudden, it seems imperative for him to uncover the truth. The more ill-behaved he became the more antipathy I felt for him and the book as a whole. This character change was abrupt and doubtful. While Christopher never struck me as a particularly likeable or kind person he seemed a level-headed and sensible person. And then he just becomes this increasingly tyrannical, inconsiderate, and impudent man.
The mystery was anti-climatic and the story lacked a cohesive structure or at least a rewarding storyline. Christopher remains undeveloped and uninteresting, while the secondary character seemed mere devices. Take Akira for example…his role in the story is disappointing. At the end especially he just ‘puffs’, vanishes, disappears. Christopher doesn’t think of him or their last encounter.
Nevertheless Ishiguro’s prose is certainly refined and, to begin with, thoughtful. His dialogues always ring true, from the words they use to express themselves to the vernaculars they use, even when the motivations of his characters don’t. He certainly succeeds in evoking the society in which Christopher moves, as well as the cultural differences between England and China. While I didn’t particularly enjoy this novel I still consider Ishiguro to be one of the best writers ‘out there’.

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

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