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VINE VOICEon October 27, 2001
Christopher Banks is a young boy when his parents disappear, one after the other, under mysterious circumstances, while they are living in Shanghai. Christopher is sent back to England to live, where he grows up, with the mystery of his parents' disappearance constantly erodes his grip on reality. The story is told in a first person narrative, and almost from the start, Ishiguro tips us off to the idea that Christopher may not be telling us the whole truth, that he may not be able to grasp the whole truth. Christopher's story and the way he tells it is fascinating. Ishiguro is able to navigate seamlessly from time frame to time frame. Christopher achieves some notoriety in London (or at least he thinks he has) as a private investigator. He returns after many years to Shanghai, to finally try and solve the mystery surrounding his parents' disappearance. He believes he knows what happened to them, even before arriving back in Shangha. It is his misguided beliefs that lead him into an almost Kafkaesque spiral into unreality and delusion. This section of the book must be read as at least a partial deluded episode because much of what happens is implausible. The book, and Christopher, ultimately return to reality and we understand at least part of the truth of Christopher's life and what happened to his parents. I thought this was a brilliant work, not as a detective novel, but as a character study of someone who has been fooling himself his entire life.
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on October 24, 2000
Many readers found "When We Were Orphans" to be a beautifully conceived and complex tale of friendship, the bonds of family and romantic love set in an historically fascinating political and cultural time in British-Chinese and Chinese-Japanese relations. I would agree with that assessment, but with this caveat: the complexity of the tale is rooted in the fact that Christopher Bank's emotional development was so stunted in youth that as a man, he was incapable of experiencing true love, familial bonds and friendship. Did we read different books?! Is Ishiguro's mastery of subtlety purposeful, allowing readers to draw differing interpretations just as a piece of contemporary art conveys something different to every viewer? Or did the publisher leave too much on the cutting floor for the sake of making Ishiguro's latest a commercial success?
In my opinion, the author was at his personal best in making me feel as though I was an eager third "chap" along for the thrill & satisfaction of the forbidden adventure in Akira's house, a member of the shallow London society set marveling over the incomparable Christopher Banks and a supportive Dr. Watson along for the thrill & satisfaction of the final forbidden adventure through a disorientingly unfamiliar Shanghai outside of the International Settlement. Ishiguro's backdrops are gorgeous.
Nonetheless, I felt the story lacked momentum, depth and cohesion for want of character development.
Why did Christopher love Sarah, or believe he loved Sarah? I hoped to the end to learn something about this woman that would make me value her as a worthwhile human being. The "bus ride" conversation suggested there was more to her than her social-climbing persona implied, but if there was, we didn't discover it. I concluded that Christopher's attachment to her (when considered in context with his connections to the other important people in his life) had nothing to do with romantic love, but everything to do with her shared status as an orphan and all that imparted to Christopher's capacity for relationships.
Why in the world did Christopher adopt a daughter, and where was the evidence of a true paternal bond with her? I initially thought that entire story line was an afterthought, thrown in to create some tie to England to cause Christopher to return. In my final analysis, Jennifer existed simply to reinforce the fact that Christopher felt emotionally secure only with similarly abandoned persons over whom he could assume the role of protector, derived from his single source of self-esteem, being the great detective.
Why did Christopher behave so cruelly toward the driver and police officer he persuaded to help him on his incredible and dangerous search for his parents? It stood out as remarkable to me, as I could not find a cogent explanation for cruelty in Christopher's background and did not understand Ishiguro's two-time use of it here. Christopher's arrogance was in keeping with his general carriage when he was in detective mode, and his irrational behavior was understandable because he was so close to solving the mystery and was working under an artificial deadline conveniently presented to him by Sarah's offer, which he insincerely accepted knowing full well he wouldn't leave until "the case was closed," a fact that failed to cause him the inner turmoil a true lover would suffer. But the cruelty...?
Why didn't Ishiguro put his perfect prose to paper to describe the panoply of emotions Puffin surely experienced when he met the sought-after informant and finally obtained shocking, psychologically significant answers to life-long questions? I wanted the range of instant responses--rage, anguish and sorrow, toward both the messenger and the various parties involved--and the after-effects--comprehension, acceptance, forgiveness, introspection and yes, even change in Christopher's character.
The reunion with Akira was unsatisfying and sparse on detail of either man's feelings; the reunion with his mother was even more sparingly drawn. The denouement was unnourishing, yet by the close of the book, I cared so little for our Mr. Banks that I didn't hunger for more.
And perhaps there's the rub.... Have I allowed myself to become so spoiled by modern "literature" that I expect to be spoon-fed heroic characters and neatly tied-up endings and am disappointed and therefor criticize the author when I find nothing to admire about the protagonist and wish for a grand finale? Thank goodness Ishiguro didn't give us the much-discussed homecoming party. Thank you, Mr. Ishiguro, for making me think.
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VINE VOICEon November 1, 2000
After five years, Ishiguro has as last produced a new novel. The protagonist is Christopher Banks, an English detective who moves through the elite of London society, enjoying much respect. Through flashbacks, however, we learn that Christopher's past is a most unusual one. As a boy he grew up in the International Settlement in interwar Shanghai, where his father worked for a British trading company, complicit in importing opium to China, and his mother was a morally upstanding lady who abhorred the opium trade. There, Christopher led a rather sheltered existence with his Japanese playmate Akira.
When his father disappears, the two children begin to play a different game -- that of being detectives who will root out the evil forces and rescue Christopher's father. When Christopher's mother also disappears, the boy's world completely falls apart. Having lost both parents, he must also leave Shanghai and his friend to return to England and be raised by an aunt.
Thus the narrative jumps between the present -- Christopher as an adult detective in postwar London -- and his past as a child in Shanghai. When Christopher decides to return to Shanghai after so many years to search for his parents, the true story begins and the adventure is as much psychological as physical. After so long, will he discover his parents -- or himself?
Ishiguro's novels have been described by the term 'unreliable narrator', in that the reader must struggle to discern the narrative from 'the truth', as the narrators are constantly engaged in repressing their memories and self-deception. In an interview, he rejected this interpretation of his latest work, describing it instead as a 'postmodern' work. He has tried to depict reality not only as it appears - but as it is - to the confused and troubled narrator. Yet it is questionable to what extent he succeeds - and many may finish the book troubled by its simplistic denouement.
The first half of the book (while Banks is in London) is slow, but the pace picks up in the second half, where Ishiguro begins to employ more readily his favourite brand of symbolism, such as the repeated imagery of looking through glass with distorted vision that then comes into focus. Unfortunately, humor -- so important in Remains and The Unconsoled -- is strangely absent from Orphans. I didn't so much as chuckle until page 213.
Thematically, 'Orphans' borrows much from 'The Unconsoled' -- the obsession with one's parents, the narrator's 'powers', the surrealist situations, the problem of differentiating between reality and delusion. Unfortunately, themes aren't all that's borrowed. Ishiguro also reuses several images taken directly from 'The Unconsoled', which makes one almost feel like he is plagiarizing his own work. Even worse, these images (such as the barrier blocking the protagonist's way), which were strong in 'The Unconsoled' seem watered down and trite in 'Orphans'.
In general, the style of 'Orphans' does not reveal the same attention to detail and smoothness characteristic of Ishiguro's first four novels, which made them all -- in their own way -- masterpieces. The characterization is very poor; all the main characters seem cardboard -- an utter contrast from 'Remains of the Day'. The disappointing style is somewhat tempered by the compelling theme. As before, it is a question of identity, but this time the painful struggle for identity made by those who have been orphaned.
Readers will find this book thought-provoking, but it is not up to Ishiguro's high standards, and ultimately it is unsatisfying. Concerned about the number of people who couldn't read or understand 'The Unconsoled', it seems Ishiguro has adopted a strategy of 'dumbing down' to his audience. This is unfortunate. To see Ishiguro at his best, I would suggest 'Remains of the Day' or 'The Unconsoled', and I would suggest reading them twice - at least - to see how carefully and masterfully he writes.
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This is the first Ishiguro book I've read, and while it contains the precise elegant prose I had anticipated, the story itself collapses under the strain of Ishiguro's awkward and inept use of the unreliable narrator. The unreliable narrator is a familiar narrative technique, perhaps more so in film (eg. The Usual Suspects, Memento) than in literature, and for whatever reason, many readers seem to have missed the obvious-and oftimes clumsy-clues Ishiguro provides. However, it's clear early on in this faux mystery that not all Christopher Banks tells the reader is entirely to be trusted.
The novel revolves around events in Banks's childhood in the International Settlement in Shanghai, a few years after the turn of the century. This is an idyllic time, as the days drift by while he plays with his Japanese neighbor Akira. In a bizarre turn of events, his father, who works for one of the large British opium importers disappears-kidnapped according to Banks (although we never hear of a ransom note). Soon after this, his mother disappears as well, also kidnapped we are told. When neither reappears, the boy is sent to England, where he tries to fit into British schools and society. This portion is rather interesting, as it no doubt reflects the author's own experience as a young boy transplanted to England. He continues his tale of growing up to become a famous detective by recounting certain episodes, and his developing friendship with a beautiful, but rather pathetic, society girl.
Banks is clearly not well adjusted-existing in a semi-delusional state where he is in many ways still a child. From his profession as detective to complete lack of sexuality, he is the epitome of self-repression. His adoption of Jennifer, an orphaned British girl living overseas, offers all kinds of possibilities but ultimately leads nowhere, leaving the reader wondering what purpose the subplot serves other than to reinforce the titular theme. When he abandons her to return to Shanghai in the mid-1930s to "rescue" his kidnapped parents, one wonders why he offered his guardianship at all. The scene in Shanghai upon his return is fairly well-wrought, with the International Settlement a small protected enclave as Japanese invaders try to capture the city from Chinese defenders, If you've read J.G. Ballard's memoir, Empire of the Sun or seen the film, you'll recognize the situation.
However, it is at this juncture that the novel starts slipping into the mire. For some reason, Banks seems to think his presence and the resolution of his parents' disappearance will somehow lead to a resolution of the Sino-Japanese conflict-and by extension, world tensions. While we understand at this point that he is deluded, for some reason Ishiguro has the characters around him reinforce this delusion, especially the embassy protocol official Mr. Grayson. At this point, we are confused-for in the first part of the book, Ishiguro uses the discrepancies between statements by supporting characters and Banks recollections to clue us in that his narration is not completely reliable. So, in the second half, when supporting characters apparently support his by now obvious delusions, it goes against the structure Ishiguro's established and renders the narrative a complete muddle. This gets particularly out of hand when in the climactic race to the house where he believes his parents are being held, he encounters Chinese soldiers who both know who he is and eventually agree to help him at the expense of their own orders and safety. At this point the novel loses any hope of redemption, and indeed, when the true circumstances of his parents are made known, it's a revelation worthy of 1950s pulp magazines, not a world-class author.
From the standpoint of pure use of language, the book is lovely and quite readable, what remains mystifying is how Ishiguro could have allowed his use of the unreliable narrator to slip its lead and destroy any sense of sympathy and interest we had invested in the characters and outcome.
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on January 31, 2001
Simply put, a brilliant book. Most novels (rightly so) are like rivers--you jump on and ride the waves, coast through the shallows. WHEN WE WERE ORPHANS is like a still pond. You take your boat out in the middle and (to borrow Thoreau's metaphor) plumb the bottom with a measuring stick--to see if it's solid, to see how far down it goes. In the end, the plot's a simple thing: lost-and-found parents, as it were. But the emotional consequences? The ways the narrator prefers blindness, or a kind of myopic sight, to clarity? Devastating. Beautiful. Words escape me, as his parents do him. I found my time with the narrator to be like my time with any good friend--I never know the whole story, only pieces, more and more as time goes on. I put them together, decide which memories are red herrings, which events are important--all the while listening for the whole that escapes me. Ishiguro's talent reminds me of Jane Austen's: precise, beautiful, small (this is not the right word--not small-minded or country-headed, but rather compact, exacting. The Mona Lisa, not the Sistine Chapel). This novel's rather like a beautiful miniature he's building up, one stroke at a time.
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on September 7, 2002
I've been trying to figure out why some reviewers thought "When We Were Orphans" wasn't as good as Kazuo Ishiguro's much-loved "The Remains of the Day." After "Remains," we clearly have high expectations of Mr. Ishiguro. But perhaps the difference between the two works is one of immediate accessibility.
Both books look at the way certain mental processes affect people. "Remains" concerns a moral sense of rightness and self-denial in a setting we can visualize and understand. "Orphans," I think, demands more from readers. Its overriding theme is the foggy, shifting filter of memory, and this filter takes us into murkier, more complex territory, where we're required to deduce how events have shaped the protagonist's thoughts and motives.
When he was still a kid, Christopher Banks, the protagonist, suffered a huge trauma. His parents were kidnapped, and he was then unwillingly plucked from his home in the International Settlement in Shanghai and sent to live with an aunt in England. Being sent away from everything familiar and comforting would have been hard enough, but being sent away must also have silently conveyed that his parents were forever and irretrievably lost.
Christopher copes with this by deft acts of self-deception, and we are constantly left to inquire how much of Christopher's memories and perceptions are real. His memories (like all memories) are of what he told himself had happened, rather than uniformly what actually happened. He believes what he seems to need to believe. Here, Mr. Ishiguro brilliantly, and subtly, portrays Christopher as an unreliable narrator, wrapped in a reassuring cloak of illusion.
He and his boyhood friend, Akira, for instance, create an impossible scenario where Christopher's father is cared for by his kidnappers as if they were his servants. He recalls a happy boat trip to England, and a smooth merger into English life, when in truth he was a miserable loner, endlessly upset by the loss of his parents, and largely made fun of by his English school chums.
When he's in his mid-thirties, Christopher decides to return to Shanghai, find his parents, and liberate them from their kidnappers. Although the plan is futile to the point of being ludicrous, what seems to be going on in Christopher's mind is that he had continually rejected the idea of the permanence of his parents' loss and was trying, on some unconscious level, to put right a world gone completely topsy-turvy that caused him vast pain. Thus, when the effort to find his parents takes a dramatic turn, the events that follow seem natural to Christopher, even as they bring anguish to the reader.
There is much more to this book. Events in the world at large partially mirror Christopher's situation. When Christopher returns to Shanghai, it is 1937. It is the eve of World War II, and the world seems to be teetering on the verge of collapse. The Japanese have attacked China, shells are falling, and soldiers are fighting hand to hand. Yet within the International Settlement, the inhabitants lie to themselves about the seriousness of the situation and their own safety, and the parties and entertainments continue unabated. The British lie to themselves about their role in the Chinese opium trade and about its devastating effects. (Beyond, of course, the Western allies lie to themselves about the policy of appeasement.) In the midst of this, it is highly problematic whether England as a leader, and even democracy itself, can survive. One character, in fact, Sir Cecil, seems to be the personification of good British intentions gone awry and dissipated abroad in temptation. These are issues which Mr. Ishiguro puts out for readers to contemplate for themselves.
The "relationship" stories also command attention. Christopher is both drawn to and wary of an attraction to Sarah Hemmings, a young woman who comes and goes in his life. She's an orphan like him, who desperately wants to attach herself to someone who makes a difference, who improves the world, and so fills out a hollow in her life. And there is also young Jennifer, an orphan whom Christopher serendipitously finds and takes in as his ward. They come to love each other in a father-daughter way that delicately seeps around them.
The writing in this book is as surpassingly controlled, elegant and poignant as we might expect from Mr. Ishiguro. The episodes that relate to Christopher's childhood are particularly true, alive and touching. And the ending is most satisfying. I think Mr. Ishiguro ranks with the best writers I've ever encountered, and I give this book five solid stars.
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on February 19, 2001
I read the 58 reviews already posted on the subject of this book with more than a little impatience. The readers' honestly expressed disappointments - the dislikable central characters, the lack of information about detectives, the lack of depth about the details of Shanghai - miss the point. The limitations are intended and deliberate. The narrator's authority is repeatedly announced as faulty by other characters; the narrator's oddness is self-described as the assumption of other people's behavior (smiles, gestures, and slang) in order to mask himself. He becomes a detective for unrealistic and naïve reasons; his work as a detective - from his "famous" successes to his wartime adventures -- are also unrealistic and naïve. Like Remains of the Day, the story is about someone who has learned manners in order to disguise an inner hollowness, and also like Remains of the Day, the narrator is someone who has learned to play a role in order to compensate for a lack of self-awareness and true identity. These emotions are genuinely felt by the writer, and described in subtle and moving ways. More, these are roles and behavior with a literary history mentioned in the text, not just the detective fiction of Conan Doyle, but also the adventure stories of Walter Scott and the coming of age novels of Charles Dickens. Throughout the book, themes and plot devices deliberately echo Dickens: the aunt from David Copperfield, the unknown benefactor from Great Expectations, the bachelor guardian and his attractive young ward from Bleak House. The book is beautifully written, carefully constructed, oddly moving, and yet does not succeed. What prevents the whole from cohering is that the specific political issues of Japanese-occupied Shanghai, the British collusion in the opium trade, and what it means to detect the truth, not to mention the art and science of detection, are more interesting to the reader than the writer's unreliable (tall)tale-telling orphan.
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on October 16, 2000
Again, here's another novel whose parts are more interesting than its whole. Ishiguro's latest is constructed a bit like a jigsaw puzzle - seemingly disparate pieces come together in a plot that appears more densely constructed and complicated than it really is.
The narrator, Christopher Banks, is an interesting enough character, particularly as he is relating the events of his childhood growing up in the International Settlement in Shanghai circa turn of the 20th century. The tales of his childhood friendship with Akira, a young Japanese boy who lives next door, are filled with a child's sense of wonder and adventure as are his glimpses of his parents' not quite perfect relationship. The reader gets the sense that there is something rotten going on but is never quite sure what it is until the end.
In essence, Ishiguro constructs this novel with a series of impressions - one dimensional glimpses of a world from the perspective of one character who, it turns out, is never really all that informed to begin with. These impressions are by necessity rather fuzzy. (Hence, the novel's blurry cover image.) The reader never feels they are getting the full story. As a literary conceit, this technique is passably effective but it comes at the expense of more satisfying character development. I wanted to know more about Sarah, the mysterious (and one gets the sense, rather tragic)woman who pops in and out of Christopher's life both in London and, later, in Shanghai. Theirs is an involving relationship but Ishiguro suddenly abandons her at what one thinks is going to be a crucial element of the plot. She reappears later in what can only be described as a post script.
I also wished Ishiguro could have come up with a more insightful or intriguing way to wrap up the novel's plot. Not to give anything away, but the climax is very conventional, much in the style of an Agatha Christie novel. This reader at least felt rather cheated.
I did find Ishiguro's descriptions of wartorn Shanghai very vivid and exciting, particularly Christopher's excursion through the slums ("warrens") of the city. Unfortunately, the premise for this cat-and-mouse excursion is unconvincing as is Christopher's rather clumsy assertion of character. The reader wonders: is he serious, crazy, or just over-wrought at the prospect of finding his parents again? I was turning the pages, wanting to find out what was going to happen next, while at the same time shaking my head because it was all so preposterous.
There is something about this novel that didn't feel quite finished, like Ishiguro was in a rush to meet his publisher's deadline and chose to submit his notes and scattered passages of text.
In any event, this would make a terrific film along the lines of "The English Patient". In fact, it might even make a better film than a novel. We'll have to see...
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on May 9, 2003
Readers who made a merit of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day would well up such high anticipation of When We Were Orphans and only to find the book did not achieve the same caliber of the precedent. While I have no doubt that When We Were Orphans is a fine piece of literature, I feel an onus to do its justice in spite of all the (negative) bashing on the book.
However jumbled or confusing the book might have appeared (to many people), the plot is very simple. Christopher Banks, the protagonist and narrator, was born and raised in Shanghai, China, in the 1920s when Europeans swarmed into the city for trades and business. Banks' mother was at the time involved in an underground organization that thwarted the imports of opium in the country, a practice that was rife and lucrative. As his parents mysteriously disappeared, one by one, Banks was taken back to England to be under the care of his aunt. Banks eventually became a renowned London detective and returned to Shanghai in hope of resolving the mystery of his parents' disappearance.
Far as the unreliable narrator tactics goes, as readers, we are not obliged to believe everything that Banks says (so why the pet peeves?). Ishiguro does not seem to make clear which of the leads readers should hold on to and deem as the truth. The truth is, our ability of recollections is not always as accurate as we think (or we want). The inevitable consequence of such shortcoming only produces in mind mishmash or a collage of memory fragments. Imagine all these combined with the naivete of a 9-year-old, how reliable can the narration be? Even though detective Banks had become increasingly preoccupied with his memories (more or less a preoccupation encouraged by the discovery of his childhood memories), what really happened to his parents remained a blur. From time to time Banks "was struck anew by how hazy so much of the memories have grown" (70) as he had trouble recalling something that happened 2 or 3 years ago. So while we might have to guess what the truth is, Ishiguro does subtly hint not to trust everything we read.
Ishiguro's prose is seamless, elegant and dazzling. He book manifests authenticity of the setting, especially Shanghai, in that given time period, where the so-called elite of Shanghai (made up of Chinese businessmen and politicians in the high echelon of society and foreign entrepreneurs) treated with such contempt the suffering of the average Chinese civilians. The characters are etched, especially the reminiscences of the friendship between Akira and Banks, and the anecdotes when little Banks jocosely ordered his mother to get off the swing at once in fear of breaking it.
A fine piece of literature is never without flaw. The book take quite a sharp turns and rushes to an end that shocks not only the readers but the protagonist as well. I will not give that away to spoil the reading experience but to me honestly it is somewhat annoying (and lame). All I can say is the resolution of the case brings about irreparable damage in Banks' life and affirms his traumatic childhood. The fun part is being tricked at the end. An intriguing story. Page-turner. 4.2 stars.
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Although I usually like Ishiguro, I found this book disappointing, lacking coherence, its purpose muddy. The first half of the book is suspenseful, tautly constructed, and realistically presented, as we learn of Christopher Banks's history and of the ironies of his parents' disappearance. Once he arrives in Shanghai, however, the book splits into two seemingly disconnected halves-the first half realistic, the second half absurd. In the first half, Banks has been revealed as intelligent and sensitive, but in the second half he suddenly and cruelly abandons his own adopted, orphaned daughter, leaving her in England while he searches for his missing parents. He believes (strangely) that somehow if he can find his parents, he'll be able to avert World War II. His search for them is expedited more by an inordinate number of extraordinary coincidences than by the detective work for which he is supposedly world-renowned. The plot stumbles, and the suspense is compromised.
Since Ishiguro has dealt in past novels with the idea of imperfect memory and/or with characters whose deluded visions of themselves are presented ironically to the reader as facts, one cannot help wondering, while reading the second half, whether Banks really is a great detective, whether he really is doing all the absurd things he presents to us as real events in Shanghai, and whether the author is deliberately showing him in a surreal, rather than real, world. If this is the author's intention, it is by no means clear--there are too few clues in the first half to cause the reader to actively question the view of reality presented there. In addition, it is not accompanied in the second half by any heightened sense of introspection or by any change from the realistic tone and style of the first half. Neither Banks nor the reader learns anything significant on any level other than that of plot.
Ultimately, I found myself haunted by the drama of Banks's search and by his need to resolve the mysteries in his life but frustrated-and annoyed--by his ultimate lack of change and by the unresolved mysteries with which the author leaves us. The author made me feel like a pawn, the victim of literary trickery.
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