Book Review - When We Were Orphans

Extending the Possibilities of Fiction

When We Were Orphans
By Kazuo Ishiguro
Alfred A. Knopf, New York

Reviewed by John Hope

So I get this e-mail from my esteemed editor offering me an opportunity to review a new novel by Kazuo Ishiguro who, "if you don’t remember, wrote Remains of the Day." Now it’s nice to have my intellectual and cultural prowess assumed, but the fact of the matter is that I’ve never heard of Ishiguro or Remains of the Day.

But, I’ve got to tell you, now that I have devoured When We Were Orphans, I’m looking forward to reading his other works. This is not the typical political potboiler, military adventure, or mystery paperback that are the genres I read most. Nor does it have the broad sweep of time and place that James Michener offers in many of his books. In fact, it’s quite different from any other novel I remember reading. But there’s something very engaging in its different-ness.

It may be because Ishiguro is a Japanese native who has lived in England since he was 6. Born in Nagasaki in 1954, he moved to Britain in 1960, attended the University of Kent at Canterbury and the University of East Anglia, and now lives in London. Little else is said in biographical sketches of him and I find it hard to believe that he is only 46 years old.When We Were Orphans reads as though someone much older wrote it.

The story is narrated by Christopher Banks, an English boy who lives with his mother and father in the International Settlement in Shanghai in the early years of the 20th century. His father is an important businessman and his mother is active in a campaign to stop the opium trade in China. Christopher’s days are spent playing with Akira, the Japanese boy who lives next door. Their games often revolve around imagined mysteries and their roles as detectives in solving the crimes.

One day, when Christopher is eager to get to Akira’s house for an adventure that must be dealt with immediately, he is told the shocking news that his father never made it to work that morning and appears to have disappeared. Hours turn into days and then weeks with no word from the elder Banks and only reassurances that the police are doing all they can.

Christopher’s mother tries very hard to return life to normal as it seemed to Christopher until one day a close family friend, known to Christopher as Uncle Philip, takes the boy on an outing and then apologizes before disappearing into the crowd, leaving the boy alone. Christopher makes his way back home to find his mother gone. Ultimately he is sent to England to live with a maiden aunt and becomes a world-renowned consulting detective, solving many mysteries whose nature are only hinted at in the book.

Through much of the book a potential love interest in the form of Sarah Hemmings approaches, pulls back, and approaches again. Along the way, Banks also adopts a young girl who has been orphaned. Finally, through a series of events, he becomes convinced that he knows what happened to his parents and that they are alive and well but being held captive still in Shanghai. He returns there in the midst of a raging war with the Japanese to locate his parents and rescue them, going so far as to plan a big ceremony in a park in honor of their safe release.

To give much more of the plot at this point would be to ruin the book for those who want to read it. Suffice to say that there are numerous twists as Banks tries to pursue his leading and find his parents. The reader is alternately amazed at how well he does and how blind he is to reality. And the reality of what did happen to his mother and father is horrifying and emotionally wrenching.

The book is written in a quiet, simple, unemotional tone that becomes very appealing and does not lose its ability to grab and hold a reader. Banks is a likeable hero and narrator and we wish him well, while also wishing we could grab him by the shoulder and shake him and urge him to wake up and smell the coffee.

I found it hard to put down When We Were Orphans because so much of it was slow and understated that I was eager to see what resolution Ishiguro was heading for. The ending surprised me. It is satisfying but, again, not in the format or style of the novels I typically read.

Advance copies of the book have drawn great praise from English critics. They call Ishiguro "one of the most eloquent poets of loss," and say that one seldom reads a novel "that so convinces you that it is extending the possibilities of fiction." Esquire calls it his most densely plotted and dramatic novel to date and says that what remains with a reader is "its extraordinary thematic resonance and depth." In my down-to-earth, male way, I like best Time’s review that the book "is a rich, satisfying read, clear yet complex."

This feature originally appeared in MODE Magazine, September 14, 2000.
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