I have just finished up When We Were Orphans, yet another great read by the incomparable contemporary stylist, Kazuo Ishiguro. Like the Ishiguro works I have read before, The Remains of the Day and Nocturnes, When We Were Orphans reads beautifully, each impeccably chosen word flowing effortlessly to the next. Similarly, this novel is also home to another unreliable narrator, this one striving to uncover the mystery of his parents’ disappearances many years ago.
When We Were Orphans opens with Christopher Banks, a recent Cambridge graduate, as he begins his career as a private detective. The novel then careens through time, flashing back to Banks’s childhood in Shanghai as he meanwhile achieves increased success in his profession. Motivated by the mystery surrounding the disappearance of his parents when he was adolescent, Banks travels back to Shanghai to resolve the case local officials failed to conclude years ago. However, the city Banks encounters as an adult is nothing like the Shanghai of his youth: the Sino-Japanese War having ravaged it beyond recognition. Consequently, as Banks sojourns through what he considers his hometown, the circumstances of his parents’ disappearances, and ultimately his memory itself, become increasingly unclear.
Ultimately, When We Were Orphans is a coming-of-age story, albeit unconventionally told. Like other heroes of the bildungsroman genre, Banks is astutely capable of isolating the moments of his life in which the innocence of youth is betrayed. For example, when a young Banks rushes home fearing that his mother has been kidnapped, he finds his amah, or nanny, alone and in tears, lacking authority for the first time. While this memory clearly shakes his childlike view of the adult world, Banks’s maturity proves not yet to have reached its apogee as he naively searches for his parents decades later in war-torn Shanghai.
One of the reasons I was compelled to read When We Were Orphans over the other Ishiguro novels I have yet to read was its unique title. The use of the plural “We” and past tense “Were” was interesting to me, all but guaranteeing a happy ending. However, the ending of the novel and the fates of Banks and Jennifer, Banks’s foster daughter, are hardly assured. In fact, even if many of Banks’s delusions about his past are ultimately reconciled, Jennifer’s final statements about marriage and children can be interpreted as the negative consequences of her foster father’s parenting.
When We Were Orphans is yet another example of the fine writing one can expect from Kazuo Ishiguro. While each of Ishiguro’s novels and stories differ in theme, his style of prose is consistently excellent. This novel is recommended to anyone with an interest in contemporary literary fiction.