Synopses & Reviews
During the Sino-Japanese War, a young man returns to Shanghai to solve the mystery of his parents' disappearance some 20 years earlier. A feat of narrative skill and soaring imagination, "When We Were Orphans" is Ishiguro at his brilliant best.
About the Author
Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954 and moved to Britain at the age of five. He is the author of four previous novels, including The Remains of the Day, an international best-seller that won the Booker Prize and was adapted into an award-winning film. Ishiguro's work has been translated into twenty-eight languages. In 1995, he received an Order of the British Empire for service to literature, and in 1998 was named a Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. He lives in London with his wife and daughter.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and suggested reading list that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans
. We hope they will aid your understanding of the compelling themes and ideas that underlie this masterful novel and its deeply moving exploration of the power of one's past to shape and define the present.
1. The function of memory is already a major component of the narrative in the opening pages of the book: Christopher is writing in 1930 about something that happened in 1923, and within that memory are the memories of even earlier events. And throughout the book, what Christopher does and does not recollect, is of great concern for him. How has Ishiguro used the vagaries of Christopher's memory to shape the novel? How does the narrative itself mimic the ways in which memory functions? Early in the book, Christopher mentions several times his intention to "combat evil" in his work as a detective [e.g., p. 22 and p. 31]. What does this tell you about Christopher's notions of his own power and the power inherent in the detective's profession? How might he have come to these conclusions? How will this intention be underscored and/or tested as the novel progresses? Christopher tells us that after his parents' disappearances, as his boat for England left the Shanghai harbor, he thought he might see his parents "running on to the quay, shouting for me to return. But I was conscious even then that such a hope was no more than a childish indulgence."[p.30] Would the 9-year-old Christopher actually have been capable of enough objectivity to judge himself this way? If not, why, as an adult, might he need to imagine this possibility? Consider Cecil Medhurst's speech about war (which Christopher relates on pages 44-45), and his almost immediate contradiction of the speech's hopefulness in his conversation with Christopher on page 46. Why does Sir Cecil hide his true feelings in public here? When Christopher meets him again in Shanghai, Medhurst's true feelings about the state of the world seem to have washed away all traces of optimism. What transpired to bring him to this state of being? What role does Sarah Hemmings play in this early part of the novel as it relates to Christopher? What is behind her urgent need to meet Sir Cecil? Why does Christopher react as he does when Sarah tries to get into the reception for Sir Cecil on Christopher's invitation? What is it about Sarah that moves Christopher to tell her about his past when he had told no one else in all the years he'd been in England? Why is he "surprised and slightly alarmed" [p. 72] to have opened up to her? When Christopher was a boy in Shanghai, his friend Akira suggested that Christopher's parents were fighting because Christopher was "not enough Englishman" [p. 78]. Christopher insists that he did not give this idea much thought at the time and yet he clearly recalls the scene twenty years after it happened. Can you find evidence in his adult life that this notion did lodge in his thinking? That he felt himself responsible perhaps even for his parents' disappearances? That he thought he could remedy certain situations by becoming "enough Englishman"? Before Christopher returns to Shanghai, the narrative hints at what we don't yet know, and at the complexity of what we will learn in the course of the novel. For instance, Christopher, speaking about his uncle Philip says: "It is perfectly possible that at that stage [before the disappearance of Christopher's father] he wished nothing but good for me, that he had no more inkling than I did of the course of things to come." [p. 85] What is Ishiguro's intention in using anticipatory passages such as this one? How does this narrative tool effect your reading of the novel? There are hints of things to come for Christopher as an adult in his childhood detective games with Akira [p. 115], and in his staunch belief, just after his parents' disappearances, that detectives will find them [p. 27]. Where else do you see the man in the child? And conversely, the child in the man? Do these "hints" illuminate or confuse the narrative? How? In 193
2. 1, Christopher writes: "... I have also been looking ahead, to the day when I eventually return to Shanghai; to all the things Akira and I will do there together." [p.133] Is Christopher's certainty that despite the years of no contact he will be able to return to Shanghai and pick up where he left off as a child characteristic of his personality? Or is it conviction grown out of wishful thinking? What reasons might Christopher have had for taking Jennifer in other than the one he gives: "I'd like to do something to help...I recently came into an inheritance, so I'll be quite able to provide for her." [p.40] After Christopher decides to return to Shanghai, he says of his charge: "After all, how will Jennifer ever be able to love and respect a guardian who she knew had turned away from his most solemn duty when the call finally came?"[p.157] What does he think that "solemn duty" is? How is this thinking effected by what he describes as "a feeling that someone or other disapproved of me" [p. 145]? What is it that people have said or done that Christopher has interpreted as disapproval? Christopher's re-introduction into Shanghai [pp. 165-167] is filled with unfamiliarity: the strange milling crowd at the Palace Hotel, the way his sight-lines are constantly being blocked, the custom of shoving. Why does Ishiguro shift the narrative here into a kind of subtle unreality where something is slightly off-kilter wherever Christopher goes? Is it a reflection of Christopher's disorientation or something else? Why is he surprised to find himself feeling disoriented in a place he hasn't seen for some twenty years? What do the people of the International Settlement expect of Christopher ("Mr. Banks, do you have any idea at all how relieved we all feel now that you're finally with us?" [p. 171])? What is their expectation based on? For his part, does Christopher imagine that everyone equates his case--the disappearance of his parents--with staving off an escalation of war? Does he come to believe it as well, or does he imagine that the people who express relief at his arrival are as concerned as he is with finding his parents? Or is it something else altogether? Is it clear what is at the root of this particular confusion? What is Sir Cecil's role in the book? What is the significance of his candor, skepticism, world-weariness, and, finally, his physical and moral collapse in Shanghai? When Christopher is taken to his old Shanghai house, it takes him a while to recognize it. Why is there a discrepancy between what Christopher believes to be true and what is true? What does it tell you about the depth and accuracy of his memories? Why does Anthony Morgan--whom Christopher thinks of as a marginal friend--seem to know certain things about Christopher's past that even Christopher is not clear on? Speaking about himself, Inspector Kung tells Christopher: "in the end, this city defeats you." [p.220] How does this estimation of Shanghai play out in Christopher's life? When Sarah proposes to Christopher that he leave Shanghai with her, he acquiesces virtually without emotion [p. 230]. How do you explain his decision and the way it's made? What might he be answering to in himself when he agrees to go with her? And what causes him to change his mind at the last moment? Christopher encounters many kinds of mazes in Shanghai: the streets he must navigate as a boy when his uncle Philip deserts him in the middle of the city; the crowds he negotiates at the Palace Hotel upon his return to the city; the rooms at the Lucky Chance house; the rooms at his old house; the streets he's driven through before he arrives at "the warren"; and, of course, the warren itself. What is the significance and function of the mazes in this novel? What do you make of the anger and verbal abusiveness that, in a sudden and complete change in demeanor, Christopher turns on his driver [p. 244] and the police lieutenant [pp. 264-265]? The detective game that Christopher played with Akira just after Christopher's father disappears [pp. 118-120] presages, almost exactly, what happens in the warren. What is the implication of this? Is the man whom Christopher recognizes as Akira [p. 268] really Akira? If not, why does Christopher need to believe he is? "I'm beginning to see now, many things aren't as I supposed," Christopher says [p. 299] after he is safely out of the warren. Why now? What other revelations are contained for Christopher in his failure to find his parents? He goes on to say: "[childhood] is hardly a foreign land to me. In many ways, it's where I've continued to live all my life." Has "living" in his childhood prevented Christopher from perceiving the circumstances of his own adult life with the same clarity he brings to his examinations of others' lives? What triggers the beginning of his "journey" towards that clarity? Christopher was intent on seeing the Yellow Snake from the moment he arrived in Shanghai, though his belief that the informer could help find his parents was based on supposition at best. Did Christopher ever know the identity of the informer, even subconsciously? What is Christopher's reaction when he learns that his mother finally cared nothing about the campaign against opium, and only about his well being? Does he have mixed feelings about it? Why? How does Christopher's own actions after he learns the truth about his parents, reflect his mother's shift from larger to more personal concerns years earlier? Describe and interpret Christopher's reaction to the news that Wang Ku was his benefactor. When Christopher finds his mother in Hong Kong and she fails to recognize him, he asks her if she can forgive her son for not finding her [p. 331]? Why do you think he feels he has never found her even though he has? What else might he think he needs to ask forgiveness for? What significance would you attach to Jenny's attempted suicide? On page 49, we learn that Sarah Hemmings is also an orphan. Are Christopher and Sarah the "we" the title refers to? Or is there a more abstract significance to the title? Also, what do you make of the suggestion in the title that it is possible that being an orphan is not a permanent situation? On the last page of the novel, referring to himself and Sarah, Christopher writes: "But for those like us, our fate is to face the world as orphans chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents. There is nothing for it but to try and see through our missions to the end, as best we can, for until we do so, we will be permitted no calm." How do these sentiments reflect back on the book? Do they clarify, or otherwise alter the understanding of it? To what effect is ambiguity used in this novel? Does the author exaggerate the presence of ambiguity in daily life or merely underscore it? In either case, how, as a reader, do you respond to not always knowing exactly what is meant by a character's words or actions in a novel? In this novel?