Review: When We Were Orphans

Well if you have ever doubted the phrase ‘looks can be deceiving’, you have never read ‘When We Were Orphans’ by Kazuo Ishiguro. It is (loosely according to most sources) classed as a detective novel and if you looked at the synopsis you would think the same. But the giveaway that this is not the usual detective trying to solve a crime work is the person that has authored it.  Ishiguro is a Pulizter, Booker and Nobel literary prize winner for some of his other works, the most famous being The Remains of the Day. It was in fact this reputation that made me want to read one of his books, hoping I would be challenged a bit more and I was … but also, being very honest, just a bit bemused. 

When We Were Orphans is set during the 1930’s and nominally tells the story of Christopher Banks who, when we first meet him, lives in England but was born and raised in the International Settlement in Shanghai until the age of about 10. His departure back to England is precipitated by the disappearance of first his father (an employee of a bank), and then his mother not long after. He has to leave behind the only life he has known and his Japanese best friend Akira. He grows up to be a famous and successful detective who eventually returns to Shanghai to find out what happened to his parents all those years ago. All of this is also set against the rising world tensions which are building towards the outbreak of World War 2.

Much of this (and certainly the circumstances of his parents disappearance) is told via recollections Christopher has, his descriptions of events, conversations and impressions recalled from the past via memories sometimes long buried. As you make your way further into the book you realise that memory is an important theme and whether it can be a true reflection of actual events. It acts as a filter and can alter perceptions to such an extent that you utterly believe your version of the past to be ‘correct’. Christopher was only a boy when he observed the events that would so drastically alter the trajectory of his life but he recounts them from the viewpoint of a grown man with a changed set of principles and ideas, both about the world and himself. That, of course, is the same for us all. What is the truth and is there, in fact, any real truth? 

Once this idea gets into your head as a reader of this book you then start asking yourself how reliable is what we are being told? The notion of the unreliable narrator starts to creep in and you (at least I did) start to second guess Christopher as the teller of this tale. This seems to be backed up by the somewhat high opinion he has of himself, his abilities as well as his place and effect on society. I mean, he gives the impression that he truly believes that he is going to succeed where all else have failed and resolve the political issues that are plaguing the Asian region and Shanghai itself. This is the initial reason we are told that he has travelled back to the city of his youth. Or is it? Again all of this is being passed through Christopher so that seed of doubt is always there. This can get a little frustrating as you are trying to read your way through the book. We, as modern readers, are used to the surety of perspective, that the view we are given is real. To undermine that makes us nervous and unsure. And this is one of the challenges of this work. That we have to cope with our literary security blanket being removed and make the judgement call for ourselves about the characters and events.

This is my first Ishiguro novel so I don’t know if this is a trademark of his but his prose does feel very cold, somewhat distant and unfeeling. Christopher describes some very emotional and traumatic things but you get little or no real sense of how they affect him deep down inside. We don’t feel from him any deep sense of loss for his parents or the life he might have had if they had not disappeared or the loneliness of leaving behind his childhood friend. I don’t know if this is a deliberate decision as it relates to this story or if this is simply the way Ishiguro writes but it does mean that there is a lack of an emotional connection to Christopher. I have always thought that the key to great novels is their ability to form a bond between reader and character so that we feel and become invested in what happens to them. What affects them affects us and so the lack of that in this novel is disappointing. But as I say, that could be deliberate on behalf of the author.

It also makes exciting events seem … well not so exciting. His travels back to Shanghai and what unfolds as he seeks answers regarding his parents should be filled with heightened tension and anticipation as the truth is slowly revealed but it was all a bit clinical. And I have to point out that it takes well over half the novel to get to the detective part of the story so it can feel like a bit of a hard slog at times. While I appreciate that the author is taking time to set the groundwork regarding themes and characterisation, you are left wondering at times what the point is. Where is all this introspection leading?

And I have to be brutally honest when I say that I got to the point of thinking to myself ‘oh not again’ as Christopher moves through yet another memory that seemed to have a tenuous purpose for being told. If you can see the point then you are willing as a reader to accept such passages and chapters but it gets hard otherwise.

So did I enjoy this book?

Honestly – as time went on – no. I will say it was interesting and it certainly fulfilled my goal of reading something challenging so in that sense it was utterly successful. If you are looking for a good detective story then don’t choose this one as I think you will find yourself disappointed but I am not sure that it is meant to be one. I feel like I should read more of Ishiguro to try and understand him as an author and then, perhaps, I might appreciate this work more and see why he made the choices he did.

Rating: 2 Stars

(Header Image: Sarah Kreig)

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