6 May 2011

Review 22: When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

Ever since I read Never Let Me Go last year I have bought any Ishiguro novels I have seen in charity shops. The Remains of the Day further cemented my admiration of his writing and I enjoyed reading When We Were Orphans as the first of his novels that I knew nothing about before I read it. It's actually quite a rare experience for me to read a book I know nothing about and it was a refreshing change. Whilst it wasn't perhaps as good as the previous mentioned novels, it was an engrossing and beautifull evocative novel.

When We Were Orphans is the story of Christopher Banks, an English boy who grew up in the International Settlement in Shangai, colonial China, in the early 1900s. His father and mother both disappeared when he was child and he was sent to live with his aunt in England, where he went to university and became a detective of some renown.The story is told from Christopher's perspective from various points in his adult life as he remembers his childhood and later recounts his return to Shanghai.

We hear of his happy childhood in China and his friendship with a Japanese neighbour, Akira. We get glimpses into his parents marriage and learn how much Christopher adored his mother. We also learn of his memories of the two separate days that his parents disappeared. Christopher relates all his childhood memories as a detective, he relates when he isn't sure that the details are right and the significance he has placed on various comments or actions.

He later returns to Shanghai to try and find his parents amongst the disintegrating situation in Shanghai and the descent into war. He has managed to convince himself that finding his parents is tied up with helping the Chinese/Japanese conflict. Things take a turn for the bizarre as he tries to hunt down his parents as Christopher becomes obsessed with finding them and takes more and more dangerous risks in order to get to the house he is fixated on as he believes his parents are still being kept in after all the years. The climactic hunt through the war-torn streets amidst Japanese soldiers is incredibly tense but it becomes difficult to be on Christophers side as it becomes clear that his obsession has overtaken any sense of reason. He begins to ask his companions to do more and more dangerous things and continue on despite all the evidence pointing to his parents not being there anymore. There is also a half-explored romantic element that began nicely but seemed semi-abandoned towards the end as events seem drawn with a broad brush and lacked the subtlety of the beginning of the relationship that makes it convincing.

I very much enjoyed the first half of the novel where Ishiguro deploys his familiar and yet wonderful skills at creating wonderfully evocative settings and writing flawed but lovely characters. However it turns into too much of a mystery story and the ending is, whilst unexpected, a little strange and unpleasant. The novel draws you in in the typical Ishiguro fashion but he takes his main character too far into his obsessions and delusions and the novel becomes too focused on tying up loose ends in the final pages.


  1. I read this for the last CBR and didn't understand it until I got to writing the review. I'm not really sure what exactly was Ishiguro's purpose in writing this, but I ended up liking it, even though it made me really sad, in the end.

  2. I started off liking it but then the more I thought about it, the more flaws I found in it. Like you said - I don't think I really understood it until I started talking about it. Whilst I was reading it I felt the character was inconsistent but I think perhaps Ishiguro was trying to show how obsessions change people and also I think perhaps Christopher has some sort of issues, he reads as being quite autistic?

    It made me super sad at the end as well but I'm not sure it was in a satisfyingly tragic way, more just depressing. I didn't like the plot with what happened to his mother, it was barely mentioned and horrible.