Christopher Banks, an English boy born in early-20th-century Shanghai, is orphaned at age nine when both his mother and father disappear under suspicious circumstances. He grows up to become a renowned detective, and more than 20 years later, returns to Shanghai to solve the mystery of the disappearances.
For most of the book, you read away, and everything's quiet, simple, reflective. The protagonist narrator, Christopher Banks, is telling us about his life - recent events, memories of the past, detailed recollections of his childhood. Some of the memories are not quite clear, as memories often are. Events jump around in time. Our interest is held, we read on knowing all this is leading somewhere... and then wham. Action. Just in the last third of the book, suddenly it's all stops open and everything happens at once. And we get to the last few pages of the novel, finish it, and suddenly we realise that we have come to know Christopher Banks, really know him - what he's like; how he sees himself; how others see him; what has driven him all through life; his motives, ambitions, needs and ideas. And we care. And the ending, which, if told to us as bare bones would be almost meaningless, hits us hard.
Which brings me to so many other cool things about Ishiguro. One is how detailed his writing is, and yet there are many things he leaves unsaid, especially at the end. It leaves us thinking. His style is very distinctive, and consistent across all three Ishiguro books I've read so far. It's deceptively simple, detailed in an almost pedantic way - yet never once gets in the way of the action.
Another cool thing is that this book is an excellent example of an unreliable narrator. I myself don't know whether some of the things Banks tells us are actually 'true' or not. Banks himself seems to believe it utterly, but is he rewriting his own history so that he can deal with it better? Is he having himself on? Or is his memory simply innacurate? Or is it actually true, and the other people he talks to are the mistaken ones? Even during the action scene in the last third, some things seem almost like dream sequences. Could they really be 'true'?
Then there's the character study. Banks is a fascinating person, and as I said before, we come to know him very well. He's full of flaws, contradictions, and little quirks that make him so vulnerable and so, well, human. In the action sequence, his singleness of purpose is depicted wonderfully well, and... well, I'll stop there before I start on the spoilers.
Most of the authors who I really admire are dead - Ishiguro is one of the few exceptions. Vive Ishiguro!
The main focus of the novel seems to be Christopher's own personality. He is the narrator, with a very distinctive pedantic and dry voice - he lives very much in his own head and is rather an unreliable narrator - all this is quite reminiscent of the butler in The Remains Of The Day.
I found this quite a puzzling book. For a start, it didn't quite seem to hang together. In the first part of the book there were so many things which looked as if they were going to be leading somewhere - for example, Christopher's clearly unreliable memories of his past, the ambitions of the character of Sarah Hemmings, or the recurring references to a growing evil in the world. I didn't feel that any of these were ever really resolved.
There were also some implausibilities which got to me - for some reason, I found the fact that Christopher was meant to be a "famous detective" quite difficult in the context of a supposedly realistic story. Also, the idea that resolving his parents' case would in some way put an end to the world's growing evil would have been fine if it was an indication of his monomania, but other characters also seemed to buy into it.
Perhaps, thinking about it, the lack of resolution was deliberate - the message being that you can think that your life has a certain shape and direction, only to have that completely overturned. There certainly seems to be a theme that you can be implicated in the most awful things without realising. But for me this still ended up a frustrating read, although a very well-written one.
Christopher Banks, the narrator of "When We Were Orphans" is, even by Ishiguro's standards, stiff and British to a fault. In contrast with Ishiguro's most memorable narrators, however, his prim, formal tone never wavers. While he's eager enough to relate both the important and, frustratingly enough, the tediously insignificant incidents that make up his life story, his inner life remains something of a mystery to us. Banks seems like a young, self-regarding public school man from the novel's beginning almost right through to its very end. "When We Were Orphans" obviously draws much of its inspiration from the mystery genre, and, while it's cunningly constructed, the shallowness of Banks' character is a serious flaw. I'm sad to say that I found the first two-hundred or so pages of this book disappointingly dry and plotty.
It's a shame, really. The author places his characters at an interesting place and time, the foreign quarter of Shanghai at the very beginnings of the Second World War. The moral and cultural contradictions and conflicts that play out in this setting certainly seem like good material for a novelist of his interests. "When We Were Orphans," however, is consumed by its main character's determination to discover the fates of his parents, who disappeared almost thirty years previously. Banks's determination to solve his case is so extreme that the novel takes on a manic, feverish edge, and it's never quite revealed how closely his experience of war-torn Shanghai reflects the reality of his surroundings. Indeed, I struggled to suspend my disbelief at various points throughout the narrative and found Banks's obliviousness rather unlikable. It's also not quite clear what this superhuman focus is supposed to represent. Is it the myopia of the colonial experience? His character's yearning to resolve the pain of his childhood trauma? The callousness of the Western elite, which gets criticized at various points throughout the novel? It's hard to tell. I'll keep reading Ishiguro, of course, but "When We Were Orphans" just doesn't compare with his best work.
While not always easy to follow, When We Were Orphans is a beautifully written novel which will satisfy fans of Ishiguro and the crime genre alike.
Gradually, as Christopher narrates his story—alternating between 1930s London where he lives as an adult, having fulfilled his ambition of becoming a famous detective, and his recollections of his childhood in Shanghai—the reader becomes aware that the narrator’s view of reality is skewed. Indeed, it seems that Christopher is living in a fantasy world where he believes his parents are still alive, even decades later, and that his return to Shanghai to find them will somehow avert the disastrous war brewing between the Chinese and Japanese. By the time he gets back to China, we feel like we can trust nothing that Christopher says, and that is the genius of this novel.
Christopher comes to an abrupt reckoning with the truth following a harrowing sequence in which he wends his way through a bombed-out Chinese slum, avoiding the battles going on in the streets around him while trying to locate the very house where he believes his parents are still being held. When he finally learns the truth, he returns to England defeated but still quite self-deluded.
While on the surface, When We Were Orphans is a crime novel written in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle, in actuality it is a complex psychological study of a character stranded at a traumatic point in his childhood, unable to move beyond his fantasies.
A remarkable text also for the way it combines elements of Dickens (Great Expectations), Nabokov (Lolita, I think), Fitzgerald (Gatsby), and Stoker (Dracula)* in a story we can never really trust, and yet want to believe. (One could nearly say its a Victorian novel that's not one.) I am left with the feeling that, having read Christopher's narration, I will never really know the truth of what happened--but that is perhaps the point: the book is Christopher's subjective truth, his experience, his pain and sorrow "chasing through long years the shadows" of his vanished parents. It remains narrowly focused throughout upon Christopher's goals, his mission, despite the immensely larger historical context within which his story unfolds. The war, the global struggle, remains always at the story's periphery, except when Christopher encounters it directly, and even then the focus remains on his personal mission, his personal movement, the effects upon him personally. This focus is tellingly revealed in his willingness to deal with both Japanese and Chinese soldiers and authorities in order to reach his goal of "solving the case"--for Christopher, their battles are irrelevant. It is not too much to say that finding his parents is a higher priority for him than solving the world's problems--though in his mind, he conflates the two.
In the end, I believe the book suggests that some of us, though perhaps not orphans in the technical sense, are not all that different from Christopher as we move through the long years, burdened with a sense of mission and certain powers of perception and yet curiously blind to central truths, often until it is too late to rescue ourselves. Can we rescue ourselves from chasing after the love and approval of our parents our whole lives?
At this moment, I have the feeling that this book will be well worth re-reading, and would reward deeper study.
*The similarity to Dracula I am thinking of has nothing to do with vampires or the supernatural. I am thinking instead of the narrative device of the journal or diary entry, and of the way that the narrative travels (somewhat confusingly at times) backwards and forwards within the diary entry itself, as the narrator recalls events that occurred days, weeks, or years ago while writing the entry, while simultaneously referring to later events nearer to the time of the writing. As if this weren't enough, each entry (the various "parts" into which the novel is divided) concludes in a "present" that the next entry will refer to as the past. All of this is reminiscent of the multiple-diary, multiple timeline structure of Stoker's Dracula.
This is a story of friendship, dedication, curiosity, human relations, betrayal, and a child’s understanding of his parents’ world. In addition, it’s a glimpse into the fascinating life of Shanghai and the interactions of its British, Japanese, and Chinese population. The pace of the novel is outstanding. It starts out very leisurely. As the story develops, the action moves steadily faster. At the bittersweet ending, the novel softly releases the reader with much about which to think. A thoroughly satisfying story with a rich plot, this novel is fine writing, indeed!
Quite early on in the story it becomes clear that this is not our classical detective story, but a story about personal growth and a too late recognized grand illusion. Similar to Stevens in [The Remains of the Day], Christopher, our main protagonist, realizes at the end that he sacrificed his happiness for the wrong reasons.
“All I know is that I've wasted all these years looking for something, a sort of trophy I'd get only if I really, really did enough to deserve it. But I don't want it anymore, I want something else now, something warm and sheltering, something I can turn to, regardless of what I do, regardless of who I become. Something that will just be there, always, like tomorrow's sky. That's what I want now, and I think it's what you should want too. But it will be too late soon. We'll become too set to change. If we don't take our chance now, another may never come for either of us.”
Christopher is born in Shanghai and when he looses his parents to an apparent kidnapping, he has to go back to England. There he lives with his aunt , in London and attends boarding schools. He is the odd child, the outsider and someone who considers himself to be a survival artist. Deeply troubled, a child who lives in his own fantasy world and believes that he can hide his true being from everyone around him. He wants to become a great detective to unravel the riddle of his childhood trauma. This discrepancy of self-perception and what other think of Christopher, runs like a red thread through the story. At least his dreams of becoming a great detective become true.
The whole story appears to be like a walk through Christopher's memory landscapes in which incredible high hedges are blocking the way, and constantly narrow the path into nothingness. The strongest passages in the book are the flashbacks into Christopher's childhood. Although, they are collections of individual episodes of his childhood, they manage to knit themselves into a fascinating story.
The second part of the book, where Christopher goes back to Shanghai to find his parents initially didn't quite work for me and I it just felt like a brake in the story line. Everyone in Shanghai appeared to know him, and their greatest concern was to assist him in solving the crime committed almost ? 20 years earlier. He was treated like some kind of saviour and at times, this strange status was just incomprehensible to me.
“The colonel nodded. "Our childhood seems so far away now. All this" - he gestured out of the vehicle - "so much suffering. One of our Japanese poets, a court lady many years ago, wrote how sad this was. She wrote of how our childhood becomes like a foreign land once we have grown."
"Well, Colonel, it's hardly a foreign land to me. In many ways, it's where I've continued to live all my life. It's only now I've started to make my journey from it.”
Well, and here I realized that the exaggerated Shanghai part was just another way to show us how the perceptions and memories of Christopher and his surroundings diverged, and how his life-lie finally starts to get holes.
Definitely a good read and one I can recommend.
Most strongly for me were the echoes of Ford Madox Ford's 'The Good Soldier' - Christopher Banks is the unreliable narrator, leaving the reader in doubt of the truth of his story. The signposts of structure and conformity of London - the role of the detective, the strict rules of contemporary society - give way to the chaos of Shanghai.
In London Banks' identity is constructed (or designed to be constructed) around his history and identity - Banks longs for the confirmation of his place in society that his parents would offer. Once he reaches China, however, the people and places that truely mark his past and his identity are unreliable and undignifiend - from the altered remains of his former home to his encounter with his best friend from childhood.
Identity, nationality, and truth are all played with in this novel to stunning effect. The formality of 1930s high society eventually overpowered by the reality of individuality.
Ishiguro is playing with the idea of the unreliable narrator, and Banks comes across as pretty much delusional. He acknowledges through the book that he doesn't trust his own memory of events. But what's odd is that so many of the other characters seem to share in his delusion, and seem to believe that he is the man who will single-handedly save China. I think Ishiguro is attempting to portray a man's interior confusion through these snapshots of the outside world seemingly buying in - as a paranoid man might see external confirmations of his world view whether they are there or not. In any case, aspects of the book are confusing and certainly food for thought. The latter part of the book is almost hallucinatory, and incidentally reminds me of the climax of The Wicker Man, my favorite horror film.
Christopher, called Puffin as a child lives happily in this very protected world, with his beautiful mother, father, and "Uncle" Phillip. He and Akira love playing detective. The only tension in his life is that his mother is campaigning against her husband's company which apparently imports Indian opium, selling it cheaply to the Chinese workers to keep them docile and addicted. Then suddenly one day his father disappears. His mother assures Christopher that "all the great detectives" are searching for his father, and he and Akira act out the search in their detective games. And then one day his mother disappears as well and everything changes. Christopher is sent back to England to be raised by an aunt, attends good schools and Universities, and though he feels he adapts well to blending in with the British schoolboys, is described by his classmates as being an "odd bird" and a loner. They give him an antique magnifying glass as a present, but also to tease him for wanting to be "a great detective."
The book is told in Christopher's diary entries over the years, and much of the theme is centered on how time and perception changes memories (apparently a recurring theme in Ishiguro's novels.) The narrative jumps ahead to a time where Christopher is indeed a great detective, has taken in an orphaned girl as a ward, and feels he has done sufficient research to return to Shanghai to "solve the crime" of the disappearance and supposed kidnapping of his parents.
At this point things start going a bit from ridiculous to absurd. As one Amzon customer review said "why would a great detective assume his parents would even be alive after 20 years?" But apparently the entire International Settlement all assume he will solve the crime in no time, rescue his parents, and are even making plans for a welcoming ceremony! Meanwhile the Sino-Japanese wars are going on, and Shanghai is being bombed nightly - however the Europeans see this as almost a form of entertainment to watch like fireworks as they sip cocktails on the veranda..
Despite this Christopher ventures into the horrific conditions of the war zone -- with his magnifying glass! -- to try to find the house where he feels his parents are being kept. There is a brief, confusing reunion with Akira, and finally a meeting with "The Yellow Snake" who is supposedly the mastermind behind rebel killings.. and finally the whole story comes out...
Ishiguro's writing is "good" if very wordy, in a 19th C English style.. but the story becomes rather silly.. Still, it was an entertaining read and the second half, though highly unlikely went quickly! I'd recommend it as a "light" summer book, especially if you like British detective mysteries. I read in the Amazon reviews that Ishiguro is known for using "unreliable narrators"to contrast reality with perceived reality, and also that he "dumbed down" this book to appeal to more of a mass market audience, so maybe that explains why this book was a bit disappointing and confusing.
When we were Orphans is the author's later works which was shortlisted for the Booker's prize. Ishiguro narrates his story in a series of anecdotes. He also creates suspense while telling his anecdotes. This style is very endearing.
A good read overall.
As always, the act of narration takes front and center position in When We Were Orphans - I think Ishiguro has got to be the master of using the unreliable (or at least highly subjective) narrator to great effect. In The Remains of the Day there are some scenes that truly take the breath away with their ability to juggle multiple subjectivities while still telling a story that, while multi-layered, is riveting on its most basic level as well. So, for example, there is a scene in which Miss Kenton, the semi-impetuous housekeeper, comes to "bother" Stevens in his study while he's reading a novel, and there is a moment of acute sexual tension between them, except that Stevens (the first-person voice) both refuses to acknowledge such things as "sexuality" to his readers, and may not even understand himself the attraction he felt. In addition, the entire episode is told in flashback, with the past Stevens holding a different set of attitudes and opinions toward the events than the present Stevens. There is also a plotline in the present day which is influencing the moods of Stevens the narrator, and past embarrassment about the novel in question, which adds a certain huffiness to the demeanor of the man, both past and present. Through all of these prismatic narrative challenges, Ishiguro manages to tell a story that is elegant and affecting, as well as communicating, through the reticent and muddled eyes of Stevens, a clear portrait of Miss Kenton's motivations and emotions. No mean feat, obviously.
In When We Were Orphans, Ishiguro's trademark unreliable narrator is used to excellent advantage in the way that the novel plays off of the detective genre, creating an amazing experience for the reader by turning the whole idea of a whodunit on its head. Usually, the detective in any given mystery novel is the ultimate word in veracity: if he or she says it, you can believe it. Extreme examples of this phenomenon are many of Sherlock Holmes' cases, in which Holmes professes to know the solution to the case before he and Watson even start investigating - he's more just trying to tie up a few loose ends, and then he'll reveal everything to us.
But Christopher Banks, the ostensibly great detective in Ishiguro's novel, is wildly unreliable, constantly overlooking the obvious, insisting on the ludicrous, and attempting to paint a picture of himself that's at odds with the memories of seemingly every person he runs across in the course of the novel. Over and over, although he insists on his own social acumen, he meets old acquaintances and classmates who remember him as "a miserable loner" or "an odd duck" - claims to which he takes startled exception ("You must have me confused with someone else, old chap. I was always one for mucking in."). Likewise, when he remembers or encounters anyone who expresses compassion about his orphanhood (his parents are kidnapped when he is a child), he reacts with brusque annoyance.
These character quirks are rendered mysterious rather than absurd or amusing, by the fact that there are also people who do seem to take Banks seriously - he's not simply a deluded maniac believing himself to be a great detective. There are instances that seem to corroborate almost positively certain claims that Banks makes at one time or another, and other passages where he does seem genuinely perceptive and honest, balancing out his more outlandish moments. The interplay between these elements leaves the reader floating along on a superbly-crafted bed of quicksand, always unsure quite what to believe, which events Banks has reported accurately, and why or in what ways he has been inaccurate. Banks' own frustrated description of the citizens of Shanghai could equally well be a description of his own narrative style:
"People here seem determined at every opportunity to block one's view. No sooner has one entered a room or stepped out of a car than someone or other will have smilingly placed himself right within one's line of vision, preventing the most basic perusal of one's surroundings. Often as not, the offending person is one's very host or guide of that moment..."
Generally, murder mysteries are only interesting until the detective reveals the solution, pointed out carefully by all the clues. After that, all the ends have been tied up neatly and the reader is no longer held to the story. But in this case, the novel remains fascinating long after finishing it, because the reader is never quite sure what actually happened, what motivated the characters, or, more importantly for the book itself, the larger ramifications of those events. Not that this uncertainty is ever down to poor writing or simple lack of character development - far from it. Instead, it is as if the possible realities of Banks' life are refracted through the prism of his perception, and Ishiguro somehow manages to communicate many interwoven possibilities via one impressive narration, leaving the reader to draw her own conclusions or simply wander forever among the potential choices.
Like Ishiguro's other novels, When We Were Orphans has much to say about British and Japanese imperialism - in this case, the British occupation and Japanese invasion of Shanghai and mainland China in the first half of the twentieth century. Being far from an expert on the history of foreign aggression in eastern China, I can't break down the political allegory in any detail, but I do think that Ishiguro paints a brilliant portrait of the surreal self-involvement of the occupying British society, still putting on dinner parties and hosting events while a war rages around them. Christopher Banks' own insistence that finally "solving the case" of his parents' disappearance will somehow bring an end to the Sino-Japanese conflict is an excellent metaphor for the egregiously inflated self-importance of the declining British Empire. And the scene in which Banks stumbles upon his childhood home, now almost unrecognizable and occupied by a Chinese family who have spent years dreading his return, is a poignant and bizarre reminder of the literal effects of an "occupying force." But not only do these scenes make for fascinating political commentary; they are also gripping and beautifully told on a literal level, and the atmospheric prose contributes to a craftsmanly web of suspense surrounding Banks' narration.
When We Were Orphans is what I always wanted mystery novels to be: intriguing, insightful, ambiguous, atmospheric and amazingly well-written, ending with some ends tied in surprising places, and some still dangling enticingly in the reader's mind.
Then, I loved the characters, Mr. Banks, the haunted detective searching for his lost parents in Shangai (he is a bit lost and weak sometimes, okay I admit it), but then, Sarah Hemmings ! Wow, what a heroine, she was really the best, the ambitious woman, the one everybody desires, mysterious, interesting, smart...and a bit sneaky. The perfect character for a gangsterish plot like this one.
Of course, the book has its own flaws. Too much of a coincidence to find Akira in all the mess between the Japanese and the Chinese. And then, the end was really abrup and unexpected. Impossible to predict, though. And even though it was far-fetched, I enjoyed the last chapters. The last pages when Crispopher meets with the "evil man" are impressive, great lines, even greater outcome.
A pity the pace wasn't the same along the book, that's one of its biggest flaws, it started really slow and it didn't pick up speed until the 3rd part of the book.
But despite all this, a worthy read.
Loved this sentence when talking to Akira:
" 'Those were splendid days', I said. 'We didn't know it then, of course, just how splendid they were. Children never do, I suppose.'"
Although a renowned investigator, Banks has never been able to solve the biggest crime of his life: what happened to his parents, who disappeared from the Settlement when he was a child.
In nestled flashbacks and hazy remembrances, we're told Banks' view of growing up and, when older, follow him as he continues to try to solve the case.
It's obvious that the book is to some extent a meditation on memory and dreams, bearing strong echoes of Ishiguro's "The Unconsoled." Yet, there's also evidence, especially in the conclusion, the what is happening is "real." At least in the sense that what we're dealing with is Banks' perceptions of the real world as he grows up, both physically and mentally.
And that real world is pretty horrible, as the finale includes a nightmare trip through the warrens of Shanghai during the middle of the Japanese invasion of 1937. It's here that Banks wonder if the cries of the dying, exemplified by the piteous moans of a mortally wounded soldier, are a necessary parallel to the cries of the newborn.
I recommend this book pretty highly, although I stand by my opinion that the ending doesn't seem to match the rest of the book.
Maybe if this had been the first Ishiguro book I'd had read I would have enjoyed it more, but it's boring reading the same book over and over again, so I won't read any more of his work.
In places 'Orphans' made no sense, characters acted completely illogically, almost as if Ishiguro had forgotten which book he was writing and slipped back into 'Unconsoled' mode (an intentionally surreal masterpiece).
Although I've given it three stars I really can't recommend it unless somebody gives it to and you can find anything else to read (it happens!)