Rating: 4 out of 5
BEWARE: SPOILER ALERT!
It’s been quite some time since I’ve read a Kazuo Ishiguro novel, so becoming familiar with his writing again was a memorable experience. I was going to say “enjoyable,” but I didn’t think that was the right word. Ishiguro’s stories aren’t enjoyable in the sense that they’re lighthearted and easy to read. Far from it. But immersing yourself in the minds of his characters is a journey unlike any other.
When We Were Orphans, published in 2000, follows the life of Christopher Banks, who was raised by his English parents in the International Settlement in Shanghai during the interwar period. They become embroiled in the opium trade, with his father inadvertently enabling it on one hand and his mother actively protesting it on the other. When they both mysteriously disappear and young Christopher is unceremoniously shipped back to England, it’s up to him to piece together the puzzle.
Christopher, fueled by his desire to rid the world of evil, becomes a renowned detective and eventually returns to Shanghai during the Japanese invasion. But with evil gaining too much momentum, by the time he solves the case of his missing parents, he has lost all hope of returning to his former life.
The pacing of this story was superb, starting off slowly as Ishiguro paints the picture of Christopher’s childhood playing make-believe with his close Japanese friend and next-door neighbor Akira, then deepening as he transitions from England back to Shanghai, and finally rushing chaotically through the heart-wrenching climax.
When everything is said and done, Christopher is orphaned once again, but the pain cuts so much deeper the second time, because it extinguishes any promise of a brighter future. Because we spend so much time looking through his eyes, even when we know that the world is mocking him, when the past is revealed we can’t help but feel fooled and utterly embarrassed that we ever considered an optimistic ending.
Critics have pointed out Ishiguro’s repeated use of the “unreliable narrator” in his work, but during this story, I felt that there was something inadequate about that concept. In an interview with January Magazine, Ishiguro explains:
The traditional unreliable narrator is that sort of narrator through whom you can almost measure the distance between their craziness and the proper world out there. That’s partly how that technique works, I think. You have to know that distance quite clearly. He [Christopher Banks] is perhaps not quite that sort of conventional unreliable narrator in the sense that it’s not very clear what’s going on out there. It’s more an attempt to paint a picture according to what the world would look like according to someone’s crazy logic. So a lot of the time the world actually adopts the craziness of his logic.
That’s precisely why I love Ishiguro: his writing is so enigmatic and multi-faceted, not because he’s attempting to recreate the world as it truly is, but rather he’s escaping into a world as one individual views it.
As a man born in Japan and raised in England, Ishiguro gravitates toward stories set during World War II. He has been quoted as being fascinated by what type of person he might have been if he was born one generation earlier. I highly recommend his acclaimed novel The Remains of the Day, as it also tells the tale of an Englishman trying to make sense of the tragedies he witnessed during the war.
Overall, I would say that Ishiguro is an acquired taste. You will never walk away from one of his works feeling a sense of resolution. But that’s what life is all about; it’s never fully understood. At one point in the novel, Christopher has the opportunity to leave Shanghai behind him and start life anew, but not for one second does the reader believe that he will abandon his pursuit. Life cannot start over, no matter how desperately we want it to.
“Perhaps there are those who are able to go about their lives unfettered by such concerns. But for those like us, our fate is to face the world as orphans, chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents. There is nothing for it but to try and see through our missions to the end, as best we can, for until we do so, we will be permitted no calm.”