When We Were Orphans (Vintage International)
by Kazuo Ishiguro
A review by Georgie Lewis
John Banville wrote of W. G. Sebald in The New Republic that his work bears "a superficial resemblance to that of [Kazuo] Ishiguro and [Ian] McEwan." He goes on to say, however, "the difference is that he is an infinitely greater artist than either of them."
Quite a statement Mr. Banville.
To my mind Ishiguro and McEwan are two of Britain's finest living authors, some of the finest writers at work today. The word "superficial," however, is particularly relevant for Ishiguro, and despite what Banville says, it is a terrain that Ishiguro knows better than any other contemporary writer, being a modern master at portraying the depths and deceptions that lie beneath the thin veneer of proper behavior.
Like his other novels, superficiality is one of the strongest themes in Ishiguro's most recent novel, When We Were Orphans, which has just been released in paperback.
And it is superficiality on a couple of levels also; not only is he concerned with social mores and that which is right and proper in society, but also with
that which is apparent rather than actual or substantial. Like Ishiguro's previous work, especially his Booker Prize-winning Remains of the Day, the narrator of Orphans is both an unreliable one, and one somewhat overly concerned with fashionable society's expectations.
Christopher Banks is, by his own admission, a renowned London detective in the 1930's, whose famous cases have brought him celebrity and fame. Yet the most profound mystery of his childhood, the disappearance of his parents when he was a child growing up in Shanghai, has never been solved, and it becomes Bank's lifelong obsession to find them again. When We Were Orphans takes the Dorothy L. Sayers or Arthur Conan Doyle English detective story, replete with glamour and intrigue, and fashions an almost inside-out mystery, one in which what is done to you is hardly the point it is what one does to oneself that matters. Ishiguro explores the lies one lives and the sacrifices one makes in order to live a deluded life.
Ah but he delivers so much more, wrapped in a jeweled cocoon of the finest, most elegantly restrained, language that one forgets sometimes that we are expected to have some objectivity an element of cynicism when it comes to Bank's story.
Bank's indignant denial that he is "an odd bird" at school, and again later "a miserable loner," is couched with such emotional repression it displays Bank's vulnerability far better than an open acknowledgement that he was the misfit the reader knows him to have been. Says Banks, "you must have me mixed up with someone else, old fellow. I was always one for mucking in."
Ishiguro's characters all have this element of vulnerability, and his stories are stronger for the delicacy with which he crafts them. Yet, for all that Ishiguro lends his characters and his stories with his superb language, it is his manipulation of the narrative, the placement of time within the novel, which spans, veers, floats between, the years shortly after World War One and 1958, which really made me gasp. He is doing something here which to me is almost indefinable it is dazzling, sophisticated, and hypnotic in my humble opinion it is, to paraphrase Banville, "great artistry."