When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro
Published in 2000
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.