When We Were Orphans – Review

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

Published in 2000

Pages: 336

Genre: Crime novel

“It was the summer of 1923, the summer I came down from Cambridge, when despite my aunt’s wishes that I return to Shropshire, I decided my future lay in the capital and took up a small flat at Number 14b Bedford Gardens in Kensington.”

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro begins with a flashback to 1920s England from the protagonist’s vantage point in the 1930s. What follows is a strange and straining stream of consciousness that attempts to tie together the genres of drama, crime thrillers, and war. Such ambition could be lauded if it were successful; in the case of When We Were Orphans, however, the clues lead only to a disappointing conclusion.

The novel follows Christopher Banks, an Englishman who has always dreamed of becoming a great detective. The aforementioned flashback details how he is invited to some social events with a former schoolmate with whom he has reconnected. Christopher aspires to blend in with higher society and, after solving some high profile crimes, eventually makes a name for himself within these sought after social circles.

While attending these parties, Christopher becomes infatuated with the ambitious socialite Sarah Hemmings. A young, posh lady constantly searching for an illustrious man with whom to ally herself, Sarah only takes an interest in Christopher once he has gained a reputation. Christopher’s past comes to the fore when he sees a colonel who brought him to England from Shanghai after the disappearance of both of his parents; he also reminisces about his childhood friend Akira.

It is around this time that we learn the reason for Christopher’s obsession with solving crimes; his father was kidnapped when Christopher was a child, and he believes it has something to do with his father working for a trading company covertly dealing in opium. He also tells the story of Uncle Phillip, a family friend, deserting him. He suspects his father was kidnapped for going against the business at the behest of his mother, leading to them both being taken and Christopher being forced to return to England.

Christopher returns to Shanghai with the goal of finding his parents and, after making little progress and becoming sick of the corruption in Shanghai, decides to run away with Sarah after his investigation takes too long. Before they can make their escape, however, he receives information about the possible whereabouts of his parents. This lead takes him through dangerous territory and, while sneaking through a war zone between Japanese and Chinese lines, Christopher finds his friend Akira; this is where I lost my willful suspension of disbelief.

Of all the piles of rubble in all of Shanghai, Christopher just happened to find the one containing Akira. This seemed far too coincidental for me to find believable and I continued to wait for Christopher to realize he had made some mistake. Akira, despite his reappearance near the end of the story, is the first character to even suggest that Christopher’s parents might not be in the same house after so many years; this doesn’t happen until almost 300 pages in the book and Christopher has been in Shanghai for quite some time. **SPOILER ALERT** Christopher doesn’t find his parents in the house and eventually learns the truth about what happened from none other than Uncle Philip. He is left disappointed that all of his hard work has achieved nothing.

When We Were Orphans makes use of an unreliable narrator and plays with the fallibility of memory. Christopher often remembers events differently than the other people who were present. This typically comes up while reminiscing with past schoolmates when he remembers himself as fitting in with the regular kids, even though he is told on two separate occasions that he came off as strange and a bit of an outcast.

This lack of credibility casts doubt upon many parts of the story since they are told solely through his recollection. Each plot point leads from one memory into the next in a sort of semi-stream of consciousness that is told in the past tense. The novel is divided into seven parts dating from 1930 to 1958 with each part jumping between months or years. The reason for these dates is never explained; are they journal entries? If not, who is he writing to? The narrator addresses the reader and mentions the activities of the day but this isn’t explicitly explained. Ishiguro has an annoying pattern of making the narrator reference an event that hasn’t been brought up yet, then going on to tell about it rather than describing the action and referring back to it later, causing me to go back and reread to see if I had missed the part he was referring to.

When We Were Orphans tries to be too many things and, through this, fails to be successful at any one of them. Ishiguro is a good writer, and he has compelling characters, but the annoying prose, inexplicable journal template, and overreach of his plot bog down a book with an interesting premise.

Verdict: 2 frustrating plot elements out of 5

Recommended for: Fans of period dramas, those who enjoy unbelievable coincidences, readers who love exposition and summary, and people who enjoy a closed ending that is still somehow open.

Not recommended for: Fans of contemporary dramas, those who like thrilling novels, people who like cohesive narratives with information given in a clever way, or fans of Sherlock Holmes.

12 thoughts on “When We Were Orphans – Review

  1. I always laugh with your recommended for and not for.

    I agree with you. I love Ishiguro, but this is not his best. I was thrilled with the beginning, yet it changed. I don’t mind the stream of conscience, nor the lack of resolution, what I mind it’s how he changes gears, it’s going in one direction, and he switches to a different kind of book. As you say, it’s inconsistent, it tries to be much, and it fails somehow.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Haha well I’m glad they don’t go unnoticed!

      I have no problem with an author leaving an open ending or writing in a stream of consciousness (for the most part) but it definitely switches gears in a strange way. I would probably try another of his books, but this one left a lot to be desired. Thank you for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I recommend his Never Let Me Go, or The Remains of the Day, they are not confusing at all, they are consistent, and his Buried Giant is different, but also satisfying. I have read all of his work, though of different quality, it’s still haunting.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. So far, I’ve read four books by Ishiguro. My favourite is Artist of the Floating World, which I suspect would drive you to even greater frustration than When We Were Orphans! The main character is an extremely unreliable narrator, but I liked it because of that. The same with When We Were Orphans. I found both Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go enjoyable, but a flatter read than the other two, because they are more conventional novels.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I actually just finished a book with an unreliable narrator and it was done very well. It was more the inconsistency of subject matter and logic of character than unreliability that turned me off from this one. Thank you for reading and commenting!


      1. Ah, I see. It’s a while since I read it, and inconsistency isn’t one of the things I recall noticing. I remember being utterly absorbed by the story.
        Perhaps give Artist of the Floating World a whirl, then, if When We Were Orphans hasn’t put you off Ishiguro entirely.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. buffster666

    Great review, I think I fall into the category of “people who like cohesive narratives with information given in a clever way”. You mention that Ishiguro is a good writer but that you’re not a fan of this novel. Is there anything you recommend by Ishiguro?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I suppose I meant he does well with setting description and summary; the book isn’t so much poorly written as it is unable to create an underlying structure connecting the different genres within the book . I confess that I haven’t read any of his other work, but I have heard Remains of the Day is often highly praised. Thank you again for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. buffster666

        Your welcome 🙂 does it seem more plot driven than character driven? I’m reading Fiction Writers Workbook and that seems to stress that characters should drive the novel’s plot not the other way around.


  4. Pingback: Reading Tally for 2017 – Perpetually Past Due

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