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Kazuo Ishiguro: When We Were Orphans

Kazuo Ishiguro just keeps on getting better and better. The blurb says it is about memory and, indeed, it is. But is about many of the other themes that preoccupy twentieth century writers (yes, Virginia, 2000 is still the twentieth century) – good and evil, reality and fantasy, identity, not seeing the wood for the trees and the effect on humans of the major twentieth century conflicts.

Our hero is Christopher Banks, born and brought up in Shanghai in the 1920s (his father works for an import/export company whose main import seems to be opium for the Chinese market). His best friend is his neighbour, Akira, a Japanese boy. One day Christopher’s father disappears unexplainedly and, despite the efforts of the police, Christopher’s mother and Uncle Philip, a family friend (but not an uncle), he cannot be located. When his mother also mysteriously disappears, there is no alternative for Christopher but to go back to England and to his aunt, which he does. Most of this is told in flashback.

Christopher had always nursed an ambition to become a detective and manages to become a famous one, solving many odd crimes with his trademark magnifying glass. However, there is no doubt that he really wants to solve the mystery of the disappearance of his parents. After various distractions – an adopted daughter and a never quite consummated relationship with a woman being the main two – he manages to get back to Shanghai in 1937, when it is under attack by the Japanese. That he solves the mystery of his parents’ disappearance, but not at all in the way he thought that he would, is a given.

Where this novel succeeds is not in the story, though it is a fascinating mystery, but in the telling of the story through the voice of Christopher. Christopher’s voice is, as might be expected for an Englishman, controlled and detached. Indeed, it is the voice of a detective giving a matter-of-fact account of a crime. But it is soon apparent that there is more – a lot more – than is being revealed. Christopher’s perception of the world may work well when examining criminal cases but a different viewpoint is needed in Shanghai during a war. It is this gradual unmasking of these differences and the gradual unpeeling of the layers of memory and the skill with which Ishiguro does this that make this novel so good.

Publishing history

First published 2000 by Faber & Faber