When we were orphans

by Kazuo Ishiguro

Hardcover, 2000




London Faber and Faber 2000


"England, 1930s. Christopher Banks has become the country's most celebrated detective, his cases the talk of London society. Yet one unsolved crime always haunted him: the mysterious disappearance of his parents, in Old Shanghai, when he was a small boy. Now, as the world lurches towards total war, Banks realizes that the time has come for him to return to the city of his childhood and at last solve the mystery - that only by doing so will civilization be saved from the approaching catastrophe." "Moving between London and Shanghai of the inter-war years, When We Were Orphans is a story of memory, intrigue and the need to return: of a childhood vision of the world surviving deep into adulthood, indelibly shaping and distorting a person's life."--Jacket.… (more)

Media reviews

When We Were Orphans may well be Ishiguro's most capacious book so far, in part because it stitches together his almost microscopic examination of self-delusion, as it plays out in lost men, with a much larger, often metaphorical look at complacency on a national scale.
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Christopher Banks is a fashionable society detective, solving fashionably ghastly crimes in 1930s England. In his past, however, there is an unsolved and traumatic crime which continues to torment him. He was brought up in Shanghai, with a father heavily involved in Western complicity in the
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importation of opium
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Das neue Buch ist eine Überraschung. Denn es kommt so ganz anders daher, es tut so, als werde hier einmal Handfestes geboten, ein Kriminalfall! Ein Kind verliert seine Eltern. Ein schreckliches Familiendrama. Eine historische Erzählung, die sich im China der Opiumkriege entfaltet, Kolonialismus,
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Bandenkrieg, es birgt, natürlich, auch die Geschichte einer vergeblichen Liebe, und es gehört zum Abenteuerlichen dieser Lektüre, dass wir alle paar Seiten der Illusion erliegen, nun aber endlich zu erahnen, worauf wir uns hier einzulassen haben. Ahnungen, die uns mit dem Wenden einer Seite weggeschlagen werden, was die Gedanken nicht unangenehm verwirrt, so wie wenn die Achterbahn abrupt die Richtung wechselt und es uns herumschleudert und wir die Gravidität der Gehirnmasse kribbelnd spüren. Kein Wunder, es ist die Lebensgeschichte eines Verrückten.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member ChocolateMuse
I've made several attempts at reviewing this, and like all Ishiguros I've read in the past, I'm having major troubles. It's hard to put my finger on just what it is about his books that make the impact - but for me, there's no doubt that the impact is there.

For most of the book, you read away, and
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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!
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LibraryThing member wandering_star
Christopher Banks is a celebrated detective in 1930s London. But he is driven by the memory of a long-ago mystery - the disappearance of his parents when he was a small boy and the family lived in Shanghai, where his father worked for a trading company and his mother campaigned against the
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British-run opium trade. Eventually he is able to return to Shanghai to carry out his own researches - but is he prepared for what he will find there?

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.
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LibraryThing member riofriotex
I thought this was an awful book. I suspect it was chosen by one of my book clubs based on Ishiguro’s reputation for "The Remains of the Day" (which I have not read, and, after this awful book, have no intention to read). However, this book had a slow, improbable, frustrating, nearly non-existent
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plot in an absurd and illogical setting with an unbelievable, naïve, unlikeable, uninteresting, conceited, self-involved, stupefying protagonist. The other characters were remote, weak, stereotyped, wooden, and underdeveloped. Aspects of the storyline were implausible bordering on preposterous. The only reason I even finished it was due to the book club. Not recommended.
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LibraryThing member whitewavedarling
As always, Ishiguro's narrative is complex and interesting, his writing beautiful, and his narrator fascinating. The book picks you up from the beginning, and it follows through. My only qualm with the book (and the reason it doesn't get five stars from me) is that there is a portion involving war
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where, honestly, many of the actions of characters (and the narrative itself) just seem a bit unbelievable and appear to put Ishiguro out of his element. Still this isn't a central part of the novel, and a small problem with a book that is otherwise overwhelmingly engaging, believable, and worthwhile. You'll fall in love with his characters, and worry over them even as at other times you may be infuriated. The book is beautiful and worth reading. On a somewhat separate note, I do wish Roddy Doyle had read this book before writing Paddy Clarke--there are some effects here which Ishiguro accomplishes admirably and apparently effortlessly in his rendering of children, that I found to fall flat in Doyle's work. When I read the first portion of this, my immediate reaction was to think yes, this is how you do that. I strongly recommend this book for any writer or reader--it is a wonderful wonderful work that lives up to its author's reputation for excellence and individuality.
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LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
Kazuo Ishiguro's greatest talent is imbuing the stories of his emotionally repressed, hopelessly English narrators with a feeling of deep and genuine sadness. While Stevens, the butler who narrates "The Remains of the Day" and Kathy H., the woman we meet in "Never Let Me Go," put on a brave face
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for their audiences, the feelings of loss and regret suffuse their stories. Ishiguro, in other words, is a skilled enough writer that he can show us his characters' emotional makeup without being so crass as to actually describe it to us. That, dear reader, is even harder than it sounds.

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.
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LibraryThing member sturlington
Christopher Banks spent a happy in childhood in Shanghai at the beginning of the 20th century as the son of privileged British ex patriates living in a large house supplied by the opium importer for which his father worked. He spent his days playing make-believe games with his best friend, the
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Japanese boy who lived next door. But then first his father, then his mother disappeared—kidnapped by ruthless Chinese criminals. An orphan, Christopher is sent to England where he grows up determined to become a famous detective like Sherlock Holmes and solve the mystery of his parents’ disappearance.

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.
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LibraryThing member ImBookingIt
Honestly, if I didn't spend the whole book telling myself this was good writing because it was Kazuo Ishiguro, I'm not sure I would have noticed.I'm sure there is supposed to be some deeper meaning behind the crazy unreliability of the narrator, but his delusions kept getting in my way. He was also
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self centered, and although I found him interesting in his saner moments, I never quite trusted them either.I just didn't enjoy this book. I kept listening, hoping that something brilliant would pull the whole thing together for me, but sadly,it never did.
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LibraryThing member whirled
Christopher Banks is a well-respected British detective who seems to approach other people as he does clues, holding them at arm's length and dispassionately examining them. Yet we soon discover there is one unsolved mystery that haunts this rather aloof soul - the disappearance of his parents in
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Shanghai many years before. Ishiguro lays out a tantilising trail of clues, many of which are the sketchy remnants of Banks' sometimes misremembered childhood. Though the pace is more languid than is typical of a crime novel, the reader is quickly drawn into the quest for answers.

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.
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LibraryThing member londonlady
'When We Were Orphans' recalls the works of the period in which it is set, the 1930s, in its style of narration and the types of characters portrayed.

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
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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.
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LibraryThing member brocade
Implausible as a detective story--which the book isn't--but also implausible as a character study. Very disappointed.
LibraryThing member emily_morine
I'm on a major Ishiguro bender. Since I wrote a few weeks ago about his newest novel, Never Let Me Go, my enthusiasm has only grown; in fact, I just finished When We Were Orphans, which was every bit as intriguing as the other three of his I've read (Never Let Me Go, The Remains of the Day and An
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Artist of the Floating World).

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.
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LibraryThing member mausergem
Christopher Banks, aged 10, arrives in England from Shanghai after the mysterious disappearance of his parents one after the other. He grows up to become a famous detective in England. He returns to Shanghai to solve the greatest mystery of his life, his parent's disappearance. Here he finds love,
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the second world war and some bitter, bitter answers.

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.
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LibraryThing member SBLincoln
A beautifully written story of losing one's grip on reality. The audio version is very well narrated, which adds to the appeal of the books.
LibraryThing member manque
An intriguing novel. The device of the unreliable narrator is played to great effect--not least because of the way it is employed to illumine the character of consciousness, memory, and desire in the frail and hurting human mind. The language is rich and haunting. What strikes me most just now,
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having just finished the book, is the delicately evoked sense of the child-mind that lies behind all that the seemingly worldly, sophisticated adult narrator speaks. The reader can at all times see the boy Puffin within the man Christopher--a remarkable achievement. It gives the book a not-altogether comfortable, thrilling quality that I dare say will provoke the sensitive reader into deep self-reflection. Christopher never gives up Puffin's fantasies; he lives a portion of them indeed right up until the end of the book, though some he has had to let go.

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.
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LibraryThing member drachenbraut23
This is my 5th book by Ishiguro, but [The Remains of the Day] will always be my favourite.

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
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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.
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LibraryThing member nmele
I did not this novel, mostly because it felt like Ichiguro phoned it in--the memory games, the plot, even the characters all seemed simplistic to me. This is the first Ichiguro novel I have read, so in fairness to him I will have to read at least one other.
LibraryThing member mmhubbell
This novel is written by Kazuo Ishiguro, British/Japanese Booker prize winning author of The Remains of the Day.. so.. I expected a lot.Ishiguro was born in Japan and moved to England when he was five. Conversely, Christopher Banks, the narrator of When We Were Orphans was born in England but grew
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up in the early years of the 20th C in the International Settlement in Shanghai China. His best friend was Akira, a Japanese boy who lived next door, their fathers working for international companies providing a very rich and sheltered lifestyle.

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.
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LibraryThing member sweetiegherkin
Christopher Banks, a renown London detective (ala Sherlock Holmes), recalls his childhood in the Shanghai international settlement, where both of his parents went missing, and decides that solving the mystery of his parents' disappearances is to be his greatest case. I read this book before (in
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July 2006; there must be something about the month of July that I choose to read this book then) and enjoyed it a lot, despite criticism that it is Ishiguro's weakest work, with the author himself saying it is not his best. While I do see the flaws in the work and how it is not as technically well-bound as his other works, I nevertheless appreciated the beauty of this work. In fact, I went on to read two other of Ishiguro's titles and was inclined to read this one again because I like his work so much and because this story in particular stuck with me over the years. Ishiguro seems to be interested very much in all his works with memories (including how they can elude or deceive us at times) and how the past continues to haunt and affect us (isn't this so true?). This is a great theme (and one that can be quite universal), and I like how he can incorporate it into different genres (i.e., mystery is this case, science fiction in his Never Let Me Go). When We Were Orphans is a compelling and thoughtful work, and I heartily recommend it. And, for the audiophile, John Lee is a spectacular narrator with perfect pacing and spot-on accents.
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LibraryThing member CasualFriday
I have a big literary crush on Kazuo Ishiguro. The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go were two of my favorite books of the last five years. When We Were Orphans is a different animal. It's much more densely plotted and the tone is much less controlled. The book is about Christopher Banks, an
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Englishman reared in Shanghai whose parents disappeared mysteriously when he was six years old. He grows up to be a renowned (?) detective and returns to Shanghai in hopes of solving the case - and by doing so, resolving the Sino-Japanese war and saving civilization.

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.
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LibraryThing member SqueakyChu
Christopher Banks, a well known detective living in England, reminisces about his childhood in Shanghai. He and his Japanese friend Akira enjoy long hours together of creative play, including creating a detective story explaining Christopher’s parents’ suddenly disappearance. The newly-orphaned
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Christopher is sent to England to be raised by an elderly aunt. As an adult, he makes it a priority to determine the true story of what happened to his parents.

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!
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LibraryThing member Luli81
Maybe not his best work, but reading his prose is always a treat, it's smooth like velvet.
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,
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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.'"
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LibraryThing member MelmoththeLost
Ishiguro is a well-respected contemporary author so I feel I ought to be able to score this novel higher than I have.

Unfortunately although it's generally well-written I found myself irritated by a serious flaw in the plot, ie that the protagonist is so utterly convinced that his parents are being
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held prisoner in a house 30 years after they were last reported there that he's prepared to go to utterly ridiculous lengths to visit the house despite a war of total destruction going on around him.

Other readers may be able to suspend disbelief over a point like that and not have it spoil the story for them, but it bugged the hell out of me.
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LibraryThing member michaeldwebb
This is the fourth Ishiguro book I've read, and it's now apparent to me that he's a bit of a one trick pony - vaguely awkward, slightly unreliable narrator and slowly revealed truths being common themes.

Maybe if this had been the first Ishiguro book I'd had read I would have enjoyed it more, but
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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!)
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LibraryThing member autumnesf
A strange novel. The main character grew up in Shanghai until both of his parents disappear. He returns to Shanghai as an adult after becoming a famous detective and proceeds to try and solve the case of his missing parents. I had a rather hard time getting through it as many of his dealings with
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the Chinese or Japanese were rather rude and ugly. I found myself really disliking him for his arrogance with others. There are much better books out there.
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LibraryThing member Niecierpek
An interesting case of an unreliable narrator, but in the end the plot resembles other famous plots too much to make it a memorable book.
It was interesting to read, just a bit disappointing at the end.


Booker Prize (Longlist — 2000)
Dublin Literary Award (Longlist — 2002)
Costa Book Awards (Shortlist — Novel — 2000)


Local notes

signed by author


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