|Kazuo Ishiguro: When We Were Orphans|
Alfred A. Knopf (Hardcover), ISBN 0-375-41054-6
In When We Were Orphans by British author Kazuo Ishiguro, a young boy's parents vanish. From this incident arise the themes of an idyll shattered, childhood lost, betrayal confessed, and a sacrifice discovered.
An only child, Christopher Banks lived with his parents in Shanghai's International Settlement, the enclave for foreigners in the early 20th century. His father worked for a powerful British trading company. His mother crusaded against the Chinese opium trade, which the British companies operated in league with Chinese warlords to suppress the "Yellow Scourge." But when Christopher turned 10, his father and mother disappeared.
We meet Christopher in 1930, just graduated from Cambridge and settled in London. He fulfills a childhood aspiration and embarks on a career as a private detective.
Christopher narrates his story in flashbacks, beginning in 1930, and ending in the book's present, 1958. He relives an ideal childhood. Nicknamed "Puffin," Christopher enjoys a close relationship with his mother, a spirited, outspoken woman who openly acts upon her convictions, especially her war against opium. He spends his days with Akira, his best friend from the Japanese family next store. Love and security suffuse Christopher's life. But his parents' disappearance destroys this world. Family friends ship the "orphan" back to England. No one finds his parents.
When We Were Orphans poses the question: Can an individual reclaim his past? Christopher tries. In 1937, a seasoned detective, Christopher returns to Shanghai to locate his parents. The Sino-Japanese war rages, transforming Shanghai into a city of bombed-out buildings, dead and dying civilians and soldiers. The Shanghai he knew no longer exists. Christopher so craves reconnection with his past that, crossing a "no-man's-land," he saves a captured Japanese soldier believing he is Akira. When Christopher reaches friendly Chinese soldiers, they seize the unidentified Japanese. Christopher never sees him again or learns his real identity.
What then of Christopher's parents? Does Christopher discover their fates? If yes, what does he learn? Fairness to the reader demands that I provide no clues.
When We Were Orphans engages the reader with its lyrical writing, genuine dialogue, nuances, and characters with believable motivations, emotions and actions. These attributes, unfortunately, emphasize two compositional flaws. First, the author includes two characters, Sarah Hemmings (an intended love interest) and Jennifer (Christopher's ward). Both characters and their story lines prove tangential and distracting to the main plot. Second, the book ends with an anticlimactic scene which diminishes the natural ending.
Nevertheless, read When We Were Orphans, which stands far above other fiction in quality. Then read Ishiguro's other novels, including Remains of the Day, the 1989 winner of Britain's highest literary award, the Booker Prize. Enchantment awaits.
Lynn I. Miller
In When We Were Orphans, Ishiguro captures the same essence of Sherlock Holmes' impassioned and neurotic hunt for Moriarity when Christopher Banks' obsessive chase through war-ravaged Shanghai brings him closer to his elusive goal. Christopher Banks is the ultimate detective chasing his past through a veil of untrustworthy memory and an urgency that often betrays him. This thought-provoking novel lingers in my mind in a haunting, reflective way. At times, my dislike for Banks's character is overshadowed by my curiosity to follow along with his insane quest. At other times, I am sympathetic with his attempts to recapture his lost childhood and his need to drive away the demons that have plagued his adult life.
The story is full of compelling characters including Sarah and Jennifer. The characters all ring true and are full of surprises and their own agendas rather than just devices to move the story along. Each character is worthy of his or her own novel. The second half of the book is so addictive as to make it impossible to put down until the end. Ishiguro has written a truly impressive book about a tortured soul and his search for redemption.
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