When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro
10/10, a gorgeous memoir/adventure of an English detective in pre-war Britain and Shanghai
Kazuo Ishiguro is fast making his way up my list of favorite writers, and the one he most resembles, I think, is Joseph Conrad. This similarity is most apparent in “When We Were Orphans,” an adventure set in the 1930s first in England, then in Shanghai, although in Ishiguro’s typical style, the present-day narrative is interspersed with memories from the main character’s childhood in Shanghai. The older setting recalls Conrad, as does the pervasive sense of melancholy and the character’s battle not only against implacable external forces, but also against himself.
Christopher Banks, the child of British parents in Shanghai’s International section, has not always wanted to be a detective, but was driven to that goal by a set of incidents in his childhood. We get the gist of those incidents almost immediately, but the details are doled out slowly and methodically, paced beautifully throughout the story.
Even when Christopher becomes a successful detective, he remains unable to objectively examine his own life. Ishiguro uses the “unreliable narrator” as a common device in many of his books as a way to add depth to the story; here it is the story. Christopher trusts his own perceptions and memories of his life above all else. When a former schoolmate remarks on how they were both loners and outcasts, Christopher assumes he must be mistaken because he, Christopher, doesn’t remember being an outcast.
The filtering is so extreme that in many cases it becomes as difficult for the reader to piece together what is really happening as it is for Christopher himself. He perceives that there is great demand for him to help with the international situation, and when a country policeman comments offhandedly that someone should go to where the “heart of the serpent” is, Christopher immediately assumes he means Shanghai. His past, seen through the lens of current troubles, draws him inexorably back there. Once in Shanghai, he undertakes the investigation he has wanted to since childhood, but the war makes every move difficult. He makes progress towards his goal, but as the war tears apart the city, the illusions he’s shielded himself from fall away as well.
This is a double mystery, for the reader has to unravel not only why Christopher’s past unfolded as it did, but also what actually happened, given only Christopher’s memories to serve as guide. The story is engaging and fascinating, the characters wonderful, and the language pure delight to read. Only the denouement disappointed me, and then only slightly, as it seemed to be a little less elegant than “The Remains of the Day” or “Never Let Me Go”. I wavered on the numeric rating for this book a couple times, going from 9 to 9.5 and then finally 10, reminding myself that it is not being measured against his other books, but against all books. Maybe 9.9 is correct. In any event, like the worst Joseph Conrad book, it’s still better than 99% of what you could pick up in the bookstore.