When We Were Orphans (2000) by Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro is an author I have tried before, having read Never Let Me Go (2005) (it goes without saying that the novel is far superior to the film adaptation). So I thought I would give another of his novels a go, especially since When We Were Orphans (2000) had such an interesting premise. Christopher Banks (who in some ways mirrors the trajectory of Pip from Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861)) was born in Shanghai due to his father’s work. Yet when he was still a child in a matter of weeks both his parents have disappeared. Sent to England when he grows up he wants to become a famous detective, an ambition he goes onto fulfil. As the years go by though there is something inside of him which is drawing him back to his roots to solve the biggest mystery in his life, that of his parents disappearance – a journey which brings about much disillusionment to Banks. The events in this book take place in the first half of the 20th century, with Banks looking back at what he has gone through at various points. Of course there is a woman who flits in and out of the narrative, a fellow orphan who endeavours to choose a spouse who she can vicariously fulfil her ambitious nature through. This story is well contextualised with the issue of opium trading being interwoven into the narrative as a potential reason for his parents’ disappearance and some events also take place in Shanghai during the Second Sino-Japanese War, which began in 1937. Another important relationship is between Banks and his childhood friend Akira Yamashita and it is a complex and ambiguous friendship at times.

When We Were Orphans

Now from this brief synopsis you might well think I was on to a good thing when I began reading this book. However, I am afraid this was not the case. The story initially started well. It was a slow burner of a novel, but the information about Banks’ past was steadily given to the reader, building up an interesting picture of what might come next in the book. However, this promise is not lived up to, as the pace becomes incredibly and painfully slow and like Laurence Cossé’s A Novel Bookstore, a good narrative premise is killed with slowness and tangents.

The narrator, Banks, also increasingly began to irritate me. Firstly he is a celebrated detective yet we never actually see his detecting skills in practice, so when it comes to following the trail for his parents after pages and pages of waiting, wading through tangents, a piece of information or a theory from Banks is suddenly sprung on the reader. I think also that his childishness and naivety begins to grate after a while and in some ways the way he seems to operate in a different world to everyone else, a world which is later described as ‘enchanted,’ is shown to have had a very destructive effect on those around him. And me being me struggled to warm to him as a consequence.

But I think what most annoyed me with this book and left me grumbling around the house afterwards was the ending. In the last 20 pages a whole box full of emotional grenades are thrown at the reader. Now I don’t mind being emotionally impacted by a novel, even if it is negatively, when it is a book or series you love. But having made it through pages and pages of being mildly interested or bored, I wasn’t quite ready for the very crammed in and intense ending. There is nothing necessarily wrong with the “solution” to the mystery of Banks’ parents disappearing, but the way it is delivered lets the book down, just leaving the reader with a strong and infuriating measure of senselessness.

Some reading this may say that this was not supposed to be detective novel. That I agree with. Some may say it isn’t supposed to be a crime or mystery novel. That I wouldn’t quite agree with, but even if that was the case and it was just a historic novel I don’t think as a reading experience it is successful even those terms. There is nothing wrong with the language itself, but the structuring and pacing of the book is far from being engaging or effective.

Consequently this was a disappointing read. One with all the right ingredients which didn’t fulfil their promises due to the choice of delivery.

Rating: 2.5/5

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