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When We Were Orphansby Kazuo Ishiguro
Synopses & Reviews
British writer Kazuo Ishiguro won the 1989 Booker Prize for The Remains of the Day, which sold over a million copies in English alone and was the basis of a film starring Anthony Hopkins. Now When We Were Orphans, his extraordinary fifth novel, has been called “his fullest achievement yet” (The New York Times Book Review) and placed him again on the Booker shortlist. A complex, intelligent, subtle and restrained psychological novel built along the lines of a detective story, it confirms Ishiguro as one of the most important writers in English today. London’s Sunday Times said: “You seldom read a novel that so convinces you it is extending the possibilities of fiction.”
The novel takes us to Shanghai in the late 1930s, with English detective Christopher Banks bent on solving the mystery that has plagued him all his life: the disappearance of his parents when he was eight. By his own account, he is now a celebrated gentleman sleuth, the toast of London society. But as we learn, he is also a solitary figure, his career built on an obsession. Believing his parents may still be held captive, he longs to put right as an adult what he was powerless to change as a child, when he played at being Sherlock Holmes — before both his parents vanished and he was sent to England to be raised by an aunt.
Banks’ father was involved in the importation of opium, and solving the mystery means finding that his boyhood was not the innocent, enchanted world he has cherished in memory. The Shanghai he revisits is in the throes of the Sino—Japanese war, an apocalyptic nightmare; he sees the horror of the slums surrounding the international community in “a dreamscape worthy of Borges” (The Independent). “We think that if we can only put something right that went a bit awry, then our lives would be healed and the world would be healed,” says Ishiguro of the illusion under which his hero suffers.
It becomes increasingly clear that Banks is not to be trusted as a narrator. The stiff, elegant voice grows more hysterical, his vision more feverish, as he comes closer to the truth. Like Ryder of The Unconsoled, Ishiguro’s previous novel, Banks is trapped in his boyhood fantasy, and he follows his obsession at the cost of personal happiness. Other characters appear as projections of his fears and desires. All Ishiguro’s novels concern themselves with the past, the consequences of denying it and the unreliability of memory.
It is from Ishiguro’s own family history that the novel takes its setting. Though his family is Japanese, Ishiguro’s father was born in Shanghai’s international community in 1920; his grandfather was sent there to set up a Chinese branch of Toyota, then a textile company. “My father has old pictures of the first Mr. Toyota driving his Rolls-Royce down the Bund.” When the Japanese invaded in 1937, the fighting left the international commune a ghetto, and his family moved back to Nagasaki.
When We Were Orphans raises the bar for the literary mystery. Though more complex than much of Ishiguro’s earlier work, which has led to mixed reactions, it was published internationally (his work has been published in 28 languages) and was a New York Times bestseller.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
It was the summer of 1923, the summer I came down from Cambridge, when despite my aunt's wishes that I return to Shropshire, I decided my future lay in the capital and took up a small flat at Number 14b Bedford Gardens in Kensington. I remember it now as the most wonderful of summers. After years of being surrounded by fellows, both at school and at Cambridge, I took great pleasure in my own company. I enjoyed the London parks, the quiet of the Reading Room at the British Museum; I indulged entire afternoons strolling the streets of Kensington, outlining to myself plans for my future, pausing once in a while to admire how here in England, even in the midst of such a great city, creepers and ivy are to be found clinging to the fronts of fine houses.
It was on one such leisurely walk that I encountered quite by chance an old schoolfriend, James Osbourne, and discovering him to be a neighbour, suggested he call on me when he was next passing. Although at that point I had yet to receive a single visitor in my rooms, I issued my invitation with confidence, having chosen the premises with some care. The rent was not high, but my landlady had furnished the place in a tasteful manner that evoked an unhurried Victorian past; the drawing room, which received plenty of sun throughout the first half of the day, contained an ageing sofa as well as two snug armchairs, an antique sideboard and an oak bookcase filled with crumbling encyclopaedias — all of which I was convinced would win the approval of any visitor. Moreover, almost immediately upon taking the rooms, I had walked over to Knightsbridge and acquired there a Queen Anne tea service, several packets of fine teas, and a large tin of biscuits. So when Osbourne did happen along one morning a few days later, I was able to serve out the refreshments with an assurance that never once permitted him to suppose he was my first guest.
For the first fifteen minutes or so, Osbourne moved restlessly around my drawing room, complimenting me on the premises, examining this and that, looking regularly out of the windows to exclaim at whatever was going on below. Eventually he flopped down into the sofa, and we were able to exchange news — our own and that of old schoolfriends. I remember we spent a little time discussing the activities of the workers' unions, before embarking on a long and enjoyable debate on German philosophy, which enabled us to display to one another the intellectual prowess we each had gained at our respective universities. Then Osbourne rose and began his pacing again, pronouncing as he did so upon his various plans for the future.
"I've a mind to go into publishing, you know. Newspapers, magazines, that sort of thing. In fact, I fancy writing a column myself. About politics, social issues. That is, as I say, if I decide not to go into politics myself. I say, Banks, do you really have no idea what you want to do? Look, it's all out there for us" — he indicated the window — "Surely you have some plans."
"I suppose so," I said, smiling. "I have one or two things in mind. I'll let you know in good time."
"What have you got up your sleeve? Come on, out with it I'll get it out of you yet "
But I revealed nothing to him, and before long got him arguing again about philosophy or poetry or some such thing. Then around noon, Osbourne suddenly remembered a
The 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 present.
About the Author
Kazuo Ishiguro is the author of four novels: A Pale View of Hills (1982, Winifred Holtby Prize); An Artist of the Floating World (1986, Whitbread Book of the Year Award); The Remains of the Day (1989, The Booker Prize); and The Unconsoled (1995, Cheltenham Prize). He lives in London, England.
From the Hardcover edition.
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