Title: When we Were Orphans
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Release Date: October 30, 2001
Genre: Literary Fiction
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
After his parents are kidnapped in Shanghai, nine-year-old Christopher Banks returns to England from China, leaving the only home he has ever known. As he grows up, he attends Cambridge University and eventually fulfills his dream of becoming a detective. He is consumed by his parents’ disappearance and strives to return to Shanghai, changed by the widespread use of opium and the invasion of the Japanese during World War II, in order to discover what happened to them.
After loving Never Let Me Go, I knew I wanted to read another Kazuo Ishiguro novel as quickly as possible. I made it a point to pick up When We Were Orphans, and when I did, I was immediately greeted by Ishiguro’s bright and clear prose. I absolutely love the way Ishiguro writes; having only read one of his books before this one, I feel silly saying he is one of my favorite writers, but When We Were Orphans affirmed my feelings on the subject. His prose is so crisp and easy to read, yet it is also evocative and beautiful. Ishiguro is one of those authors where, when I open his books, my eyes feel like they can rest because they don’t have to fight against weighty writing. In that sense, this novel was a delight to read, as I’m confident anything of Ishiguro’s will be for me.
Christopher never appealed to me over the course of the novel, but I’m certain that was the author’s intent. While the reader is privy to his thoughts, he’s not a very likeable person. He is cold and distant, and very petty and insecure. He is constantly on the defensive and often doesn’t know how to act in polite company. He’s also completely self-deluded, a trait which seems to take over as the novel progresses. It’s clear that many of these flaws have stemmed from Christopher’s parents’ disappearance, something he has never recovered from emotionally, and has built up in his mind.
When We Were Orphans also has the tendency to meander. From the back cover description, I knew the novel would be about Christopher’s eventual return to China, so I couldn’t understand why it was taking so long. The novel wandered through his life and it seemed to be rather aimless. What I didn’t understand, though, was that Ishiguro was carefully setting the stage, crafting Christopher’s mental state, building up to the last 50 pages of the novel.
Indeed, it’s these last few pages that really bring the entire novel together. Before that, the novel seems disjointed and disparate, but Ishiguro reveals himself as a master of his craft by tying every loose end of the book together beautifully. I loved how it came together at the end, how all of a sudden it all clicked and made perfect sense. I was no longer wondering, but instead understood exactly what Ishiguro had tried to do, and succeeded at doing, with this novel.
While When We Were Orphans will never be my favorite of Ishiguro’s works, I have to marvel at how carefully it was constructed. At times Christopher drove me crazy, but I also found his delusions and insecurities completely fascinating. He’s definitely a character you will want to dissect; in fact, there are a lot of great discussion points within this novel’s pages - Christopher himself, the state of the Shanghai that Christopher returns to, the opium trade, social climbing - that it would make for a wonderful book club read. I’m so glad I discovered how much I love Kazuo Ishiguro and can’t wait to pick up another one of his books.