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An English boy born in early twentieth century Shanghai is orphaned at age nine when his mother and father both vanish under suspicious circumstances Sent to live in England he grows up to become a renowned detective and 20 years later returns to Shanghai where the Sino Japanese War is ragingThe maze of human memory the ways in which we accommodate and alter it deceive and deliver ourselves with it is territory that Kazuo Ishiguro has made his own In his previous novels he has explored this inner world and its manifestations in the lives of his characters with rare inventiveness and subtlety shrewd humor and insight In When We Were Orphans his first novel in five years he returns to this terrain in a brilliantly realized story that illuminates the power of one's past to determine the presentChristopher Banks an English boy born in early twentieth century Shanghai is orphaned at age nine when his mother and father both vanish under suspicious circumstances Sent to live in England he grows up to become a renowned detective and than twenty years later returns to Shanghai where the Sino Japanese War is raging to solve the mystery of the disappearancesThe story is straightforward Its telling is remarkable Christopher's voice is controlled detailed and detached its precision unsurprising in someone who has devoted his life to the examination of details and the rigors of objective thought But within the layers of his narrative is slowly revealed what he can't or won't see that his memory despite what he wants to believe is not unaffected by his childhood tragedies; that his powers of perception the heralded clarity of his vision can be blinding as well as enlightening; and that the simplest desires a child's for his parents a man's for understanding may give rise to the most complicated truthsA masterful combination of narrative control and soaring imagination When We Were Orphans is Kazuo Ishiguro at his best

10 thoughts on “When We Were Orphans

  1. says:

    Second reading Ishiguro's novels are nothing if not enigmatic There's disorientation; the reader is never uite sure where he stands When We Were Orphans is a uasi Bildungsroman or coming of agedetective story It is set over a period of fifty years or so in London Shanghai and then back in London againNarrator Christopher Banks is born of English parents with whom he lives in the International Concession in Shanghai Around 1915 or so they disappear when he is about nine and are believed victims of the kidnapping gangs operating in the city at the time His guardians send him to London where he attends Oxford At one gathering with college friends he is given a large magnifying glass as a prank but Christopher whose sense of irony is nonexistent at this point takes the gift very seriously Very soon he is pursuing a successful career as a detective in London His successes however are mysteries enigmas as is his process of achieving them The reader is intentionally excluded from the procedural detail of Christopher’s cases Ishiguro busies himself with overturning the conventions of the detective novel There’s a lot of highly idealistic talk at this stage by Christopher and those he meets about answering the call and subverting evil The argument we soon realize is far too broad and encompassing After a while it takes on a cartoonish or comicbook impracticality This is also intentional In the early part of the novel Christopher often euivocates He’s fond of phrases like “it is entirely possible” or “I do not remember uite how this came about” The watchword for Christopher in the first third of the novel is denial He is living an extended adolescence He hasn’t grown up We see this childishness in his belief carried to the nth degree once he returns to Shanghai that he can “rescue” his parents; that in fact his parents are still alive and living with their kidnappers somewhere in the city This is pure fantasy which is how Christopher rollsA virgin with heterosexual leanings early on he is attracted to the social gadfly and fellow orphan Sarah Hemmings There's clearly a connection on the level of desire but Christopher has little notion of what he might do with Sarah were she in his possession Sex is a mystery Note to lovers of literary sex this novel is without it There are thankfully no erection inducing passages Sarah represents an overturning of the love of his life convention rife in thrillers mostly of the lower gradeUnlike Christopher’s mother who undertakes what turns out to be a very dangerous campaign against British opium trafficking in China — a very thrusting woman who completely belittles and alienates her spouse — Sarah believes she can only be effective in life if she is married to the right man When Christopher doesn’t do anything despite her repeated public praising of him she marries an old dodderer Sir Cecil Medhurst with the object of goading him into one last bout of productivity presumably diplomatic we’re never uite sure what Sir Cecil does before he croaks This lights a fire under Christopher who realizes the time has come to rescue his parents He seems completely unaware of the fact that he’s really going to Shanghai to find Sarah The first fifth of the book is about Christopher pursuing his detective career as a young man in London 1932 The second fifth is all flashback to Christopher’s childhood in Shanghai with his parents his Japanese friend and neighbor Akira with whom he plays and someone known as Uncle Philip who is not a real uncle at all This section outlines Christopher’s naïve mindset which persists for the first two thirds of the book Christopher returns to Shanghai just after the Japanese invasion of 1937 Now the story distorts into almost camp surrealism Things get very bizarre Ishiguro intentionally conflates Christopher's purpose in the city Is he there to “solve” the war situation? Is he there to rescue his parents? Or is he there for another unnamed purpose? The reader is never sure Then there’s his cryptic raging against the city fathers for having “let the situation” deteriorate so much The reader is never uite sure what he’s talking about This “disorientation” is an analog to Christopher’s mental state He doesn’t know what he’s talking about and so can be called highly unreliableThe detective work he does is like a child’s game carried out in a friend’s backyard The cartoonishly large magnifying glass implies a focus that Christopher is entirely lacking Everyone in Shanghai knows he’s there but why he’s there is constantly shifting A fellow at the British Consulate Grayson seems on one level to actively mock Christopher by going on at length about a reception to be held in a public park once Christopher rescues his parents which seems far from certain This is so deftly handled though that we aren’t sure if it’s cruelty on Grayson’s part or if he possesses the same depths of credulity as Christopher It is not until an excruciating scene in Shanghai amid fighting between the Japanese and the Chinese Nationalists that Christopher comes upon the brutal truth I am reminded of JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun here also set in Shanghai I don’t want to reveal how the revelation is brought about Let’s just say that the last fifth of the book represents an astonishing pulling together and elegant recapitualtion of what had up to this point seemed to be aimless and disconnected bits of information Suddenly bang the novel jigsaws itself together The achievement here is outstanding I think it represents as the early part of the novel was an usurpation of detective novel conventions a bit of an homage to them There’s this turnabout aspect to the narrative that is entirely unexpected and thrilling The reader must really trust the novelist here The first two thirds of the book seem almost desultory but in fact this is meant to reflect the fact that Christopher Banks is not uite an adult He euivocates he hedges he sidesteps etc as opposed to the last fifth of the book where he becomes certain sure of things determined in matters of the heart In short Christopher Banks has grown up And it is one of the most ruthless and pitiless maturations I have ever come across in fiction When Christopher becomes aware not only of how he has lived his life but of the delusions he has had to willfully maintain in order to live it — the reader feels sledgehammered There’s that wonderful interval when we read on breathless stunned appalled as if our lives depended on it Christopher’s earlier misdirection and hesitation and willed ignorance are swept away He comes of age and as with all of us this means facing down some pretty cruel truths This to my mind is Ishiguro’s best novel though the others are worthwhile and I recommend them without reservation especially The Remains of the Day In this one there is a powerful distillation and crystallization of Ishiguro's methods and voice If you only read one novel by Ishiguro make it this one

  2. says:

    I’ll characterize this novel as ‘haunting’ A boy grows up with his British parents in the enclave of Shanghai where all foreigners have to live It’s around 1900 Much of the first half of the book involves the man’s reminiscences of his childhood particularly time spent playing with his next door buddy who was Japanese The boy learns bits and pieces of intrigue from conversations among his mother father and uncle His mother was an active anti opium crusader through her women’s clubs Yet his father’s big British firm may secretly be involved in opium trafficking When the boy is about ten years old both of his parents disappear in separate incidents He’s now an orphan sent back to London to live with an auntContrary to what we might expect from the title although ‘orphanhood’ is mentioned throughout the book it’s not really a well developed theme He is courted by a socialite in London who is an orphan and he adopts a young girl who is an orphan but we don’t really get much insight into the theme Eventually the main character becomes a famous detective in London We learn nothing of the cases he has been involved in He read Sherlock Holmes as a kid and played detective with his Japanese friend He also learned about and from Chinese detectives when his parents disappeared so that makes sense as a career path for him Years later 1937 when his detective skills are sharpened he returns to Shanghai to find out what happened to his parents Here the story takes a turn to fantasy Even though his parents have been missing for than 20 years he and others start to believe that he will actually FIND them and rescue them from ‘kidnappers’ One official at the British embassy starts planning a party for their return The main character finds clues that lead him into neighborhoods of the city that are actively being bombed by the Japanese He comes to believe he has found a dying Japanese soldier who is his old childhood friend In the end I won’t say ‘solves’ the mystery but he does learn what happened to his parents different stories for each Another large part of the story revolves around a socially prominent woman who initially avoids the main character but essentially throws herself at him after he becomes famous While he’s searching for his missing parents she has married and is coincidentally living in Shanghai with her husband The marriage is a disaster and she and the main character make plans to run off and marry A good not a great novel A psychological novel about memory There’s good writing and some suspense From top photo of Shanghai in the 1930's from cdn1i scmpcomsitesdefaultfilesstylesChinese people in 1900's from dailymailcoukThe author from nobelprizeorg

  3. says:

    My favourite Ishiguro “On the contrary it is never too late to as you put it pick up the scent” Indeed it most certainly isn’t This book was so so deep I feel like my emotions have been stretched to breaking point when reading If you’ve not ready any of Ishiguro’s novels before then don’t be deceived this is no mere crime novel this is an exploration of the human soul Ishiguro has written such a powerful novel here In the process of uestioning the fleeting nature of the past the fickleness of the human mind he shows us that memories are just memories they can never be recreated or relived They’ve gone Despite what human will would try to dictate it can’t ever be changed; it will always remain in the past; it’s finished with The same is very true for human character the person you will be in twenty years is not the same as the person you are today Time changes all even memories The power of Ishiguro’s words resides in his evocation of a longing to return to the past and the futility of it “Your farther never arrived at the office this morning But I’m sure there is a perfectly simple explanation” Some novels just speak so clearly to you on a personal level and this one shook me to the core Christopher Bank’s story transcends that of the mere plot and his uest to find his parents The details aren’t important These are simple vessels for Ishiguro to capture his meaning Banks has become a celebrated detective but his haunted by his memories of his childhood So eventually he acts on them and tries to return to a time long past; he finds everything has changed and he himself has changed along with everyone he once knew the past is dead It only lives in his mind The structure of the novel accentuated this The narrative continuously shifted time perspectives which suggested Bank’s longing to return to his home He tells the story of his childhood in parts in a fragmented and sporadic narrative The need to return builds up slowly inside him until there is no other possible avenue of pursuit It’s simply what he must do to carry on living Life is never that straightforward though You cannot so easily pick up the tatters of an old life; they are discarded much easily Time changes all and war is just another catalyst in a dark worldIshiguro is an excellent writer I bought a copy of each and every book he has written after reading this I simply must work my way through them all This is not a genre of fiction I don’t normally like; I tend to avoid modern literary fiction like the plague Perhaps that should change I hope all of Ishiguro’s novels are as good as this and the The Remains of the Day because I just may have found an author to add to my favourites list I’ll be reading Never Let Me Go later this year

  4. says:

    Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro image from his FB page A pretty good novel I thought it was outstanding until the back uarter Renowned London detective Christopher Banks was raised in the International part of Shanghai sent to England after both his parents disappeared He is smitten with a social climbing siren who figures in his adventure when he returns to Shanghai intent on solving the mystery of his parents’ disappearance Of course the Sino Japanese war two decades of change in Shanghai and a chance to run away with the girl of his dreams complicate the matter I did not care for the change in Banks’ character toward the end but I was smitten with the book up to that pointEXTRA STUFFLinks to the author’s FB Twitter and Wikipedia pages

  5. says:

    Many reviews here have commented on Ishiguro's unreliable narrators let's let that classification stand whether or not it is entirely valid or really applies to all of his work as if this aspect of his fiction is so obvious or that it has been so exhaustively mined that there is little to nothing left to say about such a narrative strategyChristopher Banks When We Were Orphans' narrator is certainly unreliable yes But our relationship to him as an unreliable narrator is a strange one an inverted one I think that it's fairly clear to the reader early on that Banks's memories and perceptions do not align with those of the people with whom he surrounds himself andor encounters His school chums and his one time guardian recount for him their memories of his child self as a lonely melancholy boy which contravene his insistent accounting of himself as a sociable friendly put on a brave face type of lad His insistence which seems to verge on a uiet private hysteria his disproportionate insult and the confluence of multiple others' POV point us to the fact that the schism between how he sees himself and how the world seessaw him is not just a matter of opinion The novel shows us time and again that Christopher is unwilling unable to reconcile not only his memory but his ongoing lived experience see the scene at the wedding where he is apparently subjugated to teasing and humiliation but insists that said teasers are his friends etc and note that we never get to see the actual scene to the lived experience and memory of others We also never get to see him work to uncover anything to solve anythingHere's where I'm sort of getting to my excruciatingly long winded pointWhen We Were Orphans tells us its readers that it is a mystery novel The book offers us one story the disappearance of Christopher's parents claiming that this story is its central mystery and suggesting by form and structure that this will be the riddle we puzzle out as we read alongside Christopher Thus we enter into a sort of contract with the book in which we agree to be careful astute readers who by dint of our diligence and hard work will be treated to the satisfaction of resolutionAll along however there is a secondary mystery that is actually the primary mystery and that mystery is twofold one when will Christopher realize how deeply irreparably damaged his perception of the world is and two WE THINK when we will learn the truth that his distorted vision has necessarily been hiding from us despite our best efforts to see through it? Usually in a novel that relies on an unreliable narrator ignore the inherent contradiction part of the reader's pleasure is untangling the skeins of the narrator's logic in order to arrive at some approximation of truth But Orphans rejects that second possibility completely I am in no way suggesting that this novel's project is one of relativism in which we're meant to see that there is no objective truth or if there is we cannot access it All along the mysterymysteries isare just a diversion a smokescreen a trick that I admire deeply and totally respect that leads us in a circle back to what we see finally is an absent center There is no mystery in the book The truth isn't the point There is only the fact of Christopher's mutilating orphaning his abandonment His grievous misapprehension of his parents' abductionleave taking the emotionalpsychological violence of itand his child's need to make sense and order of the insensible strand him in mental time; he is marooned in a make believe world in which detectives are great heroes and even celebrities a la Sherlock Holmes a world that history tells us did not exist as such especially in twentieth century BritainWhen Sarah offers Christopher the chance to reject his false understanding of the world to see clearly and to reject a vision of himself one that is manufactured by an innocent egotismnarcissism that has sustained him all along in which he is the savior not only of his parents but also of an entire city and perhaps nation he is finally unable to do so To give that up would be to negate himself to reject his very identity He would be twice orphanedThere's a lot going on here vis a vis the orphaning of course colonialism and imperialism the patronizinghelping of the east by the west sexual politics and power issues of class et al But as I read I felt compelled by what's missing in this novel than what's thereI'll confess to being somewhat befuddled by and disappointed in the final revelation concerning Christopher's mother and unsure about the necessity of Jennifer My only thought about Jennifer's utility and despite its coldness that word seems apt is that perhaps she's meant to enact the cycle of violence that orphaning perpetuates she is orphaned twice over and the novel's end suggests how devastating this has been for herWhen I finished the book I found myself returning to its title over and then over again First person narratives usually reuire despite old Bobby D's admonition a looking back They are necessarily retrospective My mind lingers on the titular When Despite how sad the book is despite its ambiguous ending the title left me feeling hopeful for Christopher in that it seems to suggest that the time of his orphaning of Jennifer's and even of Sarah's sigh is past is gone and that no longer orphans having chosen to look forward to abandon their isolation and to rely on each other on other people they might oh they just might be happy

  6. says:

    Two previous flawless books; expectations were rather high see A Pale View of Hills is an essential novel to all lovers of books and history and novellas Never Let Me Go is an instant modern classic genre splicing done EXACTLY right This on the other hand is B O R I N G This granted coming from a genuine fan of all books long boringA detective's life should certainly include many peaks scenes of action excitement aplenty Kazuo Ishiguro decides to keep all this away though all the details that would make the narrative a splendid one and instead focuses on the case of the detective's family gone missing for years years Christopher Banks tries to solve his parents' disappearance and all his other cases as a professional become this one He is incredibly articulate about everything else so why not the very depths of his soul? Yes the novel is elegant unpredictable but I would venture to guess that there are way Victorian zany yes less lengthy books out there from which to choose It certainly doesn't need to have the maestro Kazuo Ishiguro attached

  7. says:

    I read this novel after I read Never Let Me Go by the same author I was surprised that the narrators' tones sounded so similar But now I guess that's just a how the author writes in a formal and almost stilted voiceThe ending of this book irritated me to no end and I actually had to go back through the story to see if I missed something was the narrator seriously retarded and I'm not trying to use that word in a disparaging way but a descriptive way I was baffled not by just the behavior of the narrator but the behavior of those around him Why did these people aid the narrator's belief that he would find his parents still sitting in a house in the middle of war torn China? Of course there were larger issues going on; comment on colonialism perhaps effects of a traumatic childhood event etc But come on It just didn't hand together as a story and didn't deliver on the themes as well as it could have In the end I just hated the narrator and all the stupid people around him who didn't give him slap him upside the head

  8. says:

    This is my 7th Ishiguro and I am happy for two reasons 1 I am now an Ishiguro completist and 2 unlike a couple of his earlier books I actually liked this one I almost rated this with 4 stars but I could not do that because I found the first half of the book unbelievably boring However Ishiguro managed to make the book’s last 50 70 pages truly engaging that I thought I was able to suirt some tears from my eyes when the boyhood friends were back together It was one of the most poignant scenes that I read this year and it will stay with me for a long timeLike is other 5 novels this one is also told by an unreliable first person Christopher “Puffin” Banks Like his other narrators Banks also chooses which memory he would like to recall Like the other novels the storytelling also is nostalgic and silent The plot could be deceiving the prose is easy to read and at times uneventful translation boring but if you read between the lines or if you persist up to the end of the book you would know that there are reasons for the boring first halfHowever unlike my favorite books of Ishiguro Remains and Never Let Me Go this book has many loose ends that Ishiguro left hanging similar to what he did in Pale View For example how come the mother did not know that the father was trading opium when they were still dating so she could have avoided him? So what happened to Sarah Hemmings after Christopher left Shanghai? Why did she go to Shanghai in the first place I thought that going there to be with Christopher was a flimsy reason What is it that Christopher thinks that he will save by looking for his parents after 20 or so years? I think Christopher is so stupid to think that his parents are there in the house when WWII is about to begin and the Chinese and Chinese soldier are already killing each other The other small complaint that I have is that the voices are almost similar throughout except when Akira is talking The Chinese and Japanese people in Shanghai talk like British and when the shooting began they still including Christopher talked calmly as if they were in a palatial British estate and talking to the lord and the ladies Needless to say Christopher’s narration reminded me of Steven the butler in The Remains of the DayThis book When We Were Orphans is refreshing because it has a mystery suspense flavor I read The Remains of the Day GR Avg 405 with 36526 ratings in 2009 and I fell in love with Kazuo Ishiguro This love was cemented the following year 2010 when I read Never Let Me Go GR Avg 374 with 98101 ratings followed by his collection of short stories Nocturnes GR Avg 334 with 3603 ratings Never has a sci fi flavor and his collection of stories has music as motif so I thought that Ishiguro indeed was a novelist who did not rewrite himselfThis year since our book club read Remains last month I decided to read all his other books I began with A Pale View of the Hills GR Avg 368 with 3507 ratings and I thought it was almost the same as Remains and Ishiguro did not know how to end his story Then I followed it with An Artist of the Floating World GR Avg 370 with 3718 ratings and aside from the same complaints the books was not able to elicit any emotional reaction from me particularly because the characters were caricatures However the next book Unconsoled GR Avg 346 with 2663 ratings was almost like a total departure from his other books It is dreamlike like Andre Breton’s Nadja and fearsome in its approach in storytelling and so I liked it This being not a rehash of his other books was the primary reason why I liked this book When We Were Orphans GR Avg 340 with 6417 ratings Ishiguro admitted that this was his least favorite among his works but notice the number of ratings; this is his third most read book here in Goodreads This was also shortlisted in Booker 2000 it lost to Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin I am still to read that Atwood book but I think this book deserves the Booker nomination especially because of the last 2 3 chaptersMy ratings for Ishiguro’s books4 STARS I really liked these and 3 STARS I liked these and 2 STARS These were okay and Not bad really Since Ishiguro is still alive I will still buy and read all his incoming books

  9. says:

    Obsessions are rarely good things Obsessions that rely on childhood memories lead to false judgements and delusional thinking Christopher Banks a successful London investigator and the narrator of this intriguing book goes back to Shanghai where he lived as a child to discover the truth about the disappearance of his parents He is unable to distinguish between what is actual and what he wants to believe Ishaguro allows the reader to sort this out Is the Japanese soldier really his childhood friend? Does he actually get a tour of the home of his youth? Are his parents safely hidden? Will he be exalted for returning them safely?The we part of the title is significant Christopher's adopted daughter Jennifer and Sarah his lost chance for happiness and an escape from this obsession were also orphans They too were greatly affected ty this early trauma We aren't told much about Sarah We do know that Christopher abandoned her due to his obsession and that she at one point tries to end her life Sarah overcomes her near obsession and tries to convince Christopher to also let it go She tells him We're both as bad as each other We have to stop thinking like that We have to put that all behind us now You've spent enough of your life already on all of that Let's go before it's too late for us But Christopher is too caught up in this obsession to change courseThis was the 4th Ishaguro book I have read Many similar themes run through these books but the characters and the plots are entirely different I consider Ishaguro to be one of the finest modern writers I am acuainted with I hope he will continue to produce beautifully written thought provoking books

  10. says:

    Kazuo Ishiguro’s enigmatic novel When We Were Orphans is as complex and baffling a work of fiction as I have ever encountered Christopher Banks our narrator is not so much an unreliable narrator as a naive narrator who believes in the internal world he has created and acts upon it as if it were truth Through so much of the novel I kept asking myself why he could not see the illogical conclusions he was drawing but of course that is what this novel is about his inability to leave his childhood behind him and his biased view of the events that lead up to the loss of his parentsChristopher Banks is a detective but this is not a detective story There is a mystery to be solved but solving the mystery is not the focus of this tale In fact Banks is a detective primarily because he feels himself tied to the events of his childhood that he carries around with him like an albatross The only way he will ever be free to live his adult life is to solve the puzzle that surrounds the disappearance of first his father and then his mother It is the mental workings of this character that are paramount and you must be careful here because Banks sees mainly what he wishes to see sometimes in complete opposition to what the facts appear to revealIshiguro does not entice you to follow Banks on his journey through his life he does not lure you into the underbelly of Shanghai he drags you along sometimes kicking and screaming that there is something just not right about this story I enjoyed trying to pick the truth out from among the obvious miscues and while I never felt anything akin to affection for Banks I did sympathize with his situation and understand his desire to reconcile his childhood memories with what had truly occurred I suppose what I really took away from this story was that memories are not truths The past cannot be reconstructed and no matter how much we might like to alter it we never can What has happened even to ourselves might not be in reality what happened at all and spending the present on chasing the past might cost you the future 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 calmPerhaps we are all chasing the shadows of vanished parents Perhaps we are all struggling to discover who we are separate from them standing alone I had a discussion with my older sister once about an event in our childhood There were only three years separating us and both of us were present for this event and witnessed it ourselves but our memories of it were so dissimilar as to be diametrically opposed We can never go back there and see who was right and maybe we both were because what is true for one is not always what is true for another