I quite enjoyed the last Kazuo Ishiguro book I read – ‘Remains of the Day’. The portrait of the repressed Stevens stayed with me for some time. Unfortunately, I can’t really say the same about ‘When We Were Orphans’. It’s well-written, but a combination of factors torpedoed the book for me.
The gist of the story of is that Christopher Banks grew up in Shanghai, having a close childhood friendship with his neighbour, a Japanese boy his own age. Christopher’s father worked at an opium company while his mother became an anti-opium activist. Later, Christopher’s father goes missing, and then later on, his mother. Christopher returns to London, where grows up and studies to become a detective, with the later ambition of returning to Shanghai and discovering what became of his parents.
Christopher is an ‘unreliable narrator’ – the reader is tipped off early when different characters share their reminiscences about Christopher as a child, while he recalls his own nature to be completely different. When Christopher returns to Shanghai in 1937, he quickly slips into a rather deluded state, convinced that his parents have been imprisoned in a house in the war zone for all these years. Everyone appears to be helpful and supportive in this endeavour, to point of complete unfeasibility. There’s an odd disconnect between Christopher’s obsession, what everyone else tells him, and the bloody, war-time landscape he describes as the Japanese army invades China, while the British continue their oblivious parties within the confines of the international settlement. Maybe that’s the point of the novel, but I’m still think a story has to work on its basic, literary level, even if the novel’s theme is more important than the story.
Christopher is also an emotionally distant and rather unlikeable narrator, running away from his few chances of happiness– a relationship with a lonely socialite, his relationship with his ward – to follow his obsession. My rule of thumb for unlikeable characters is that they have to up to interesting things for me to want to read more about them, but Christopher’s story is slow, with the first half of the book told in a cascade of flashbacks before Christopher’s trip to Shanghai starts. Although a detective, Christopher’s deductive skills and logic are all off-camera. He simply pulls his evidence out of the air (presumably having researched it earlier, like in a cooking show) and when people tell him otherwise, he is convinced of that they are either wrong or lying to him in order to ratify the inner world of his delusion. The book’s ending feels like a sort of Hollywood twist ending, and doesn’t really justify the hints planted regarding Christopher’s delusional experiences, making the entire experience feel odd and lacking. The book is marketed as a detective story, but isn’t really, as there really isn’t any sense of investigation going on. While the writing is excellent, it’s also rather distant. The descriptions of Shanghai put in me in mind of a Victoria Holt novel, distantly examined, but you never feel like you’re ‘there’, apart from the single highlight of Christopher’s journey into the war zone between China and Japan, particularly when he meets a soldier whom he believes to be Akira.
I’ll probably read another Ishiguro book in the future; but whatever this book was supposed to do, it didn’t work for me.