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When We Were Orphans Hardcover – September 12, 2000

3.3 out of 5 stars 274 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

When 9-year-old Christopher Banks's father--a British businessman involved in the opium trade--disappears from the family home in Shanghai, the boy and his friend Akira play at being detectives: "Until in the end, after the chases, fist-fights and gun-battles around the warren-like alleys of the Chinese districts, whatever our variations and elaborations, our narratives would always conclude with a magnificent ceremony held in Jessfield Park, a ceremony that would see us, one after another, step out onto a specially erected stage ... to greet the vast cheering crowds."

But Christopher's mother also disappears, and he is sent to live in England, where he grows up in the years between the world wars to become, he claims, a famous detective. His family's fate continues to haunt him, however, and he sifts through his memories to try to make sense of his loss. Finally, in the late 1930s, he returns to Shanghai to solve the most important case of his life. But as Christopher pursues his investigation, the boundaries between fact and fantasy begin to evaporate. Is the Japanese soldier he meets really Akira? Are his parents really being held in a house in the Chinese district? And who is Mr. Grayson, the British official who seems to be planning an important celebration? "My first question, sir, before anything else, is if you're happy with the choice of Jessfield Park for the ceremony? We will, you see, require substantial space."

In When We Were Orphans Kazuo Ishiguro uses the conventions of crime fiction to create a moving portrait of a troubled mind, and of a man who cannot escape the long shadows cast by childhood trauma. Sherlock Holmes needed only fragments--a muddy shoe, cigarette ash on a sleeve--to make his deductions, but all Christopher has are fading recollections of long-ago events, and for him the truth is much harder to grasp. Ishiguro writes in the first person, but from the beginning there are cracks in Christopher's carefully restrained prose, suggestions that his version of the world may not be the most reliable. Faced with such a narrator, the reader is forced to become a detective too, chasing crumbs of truth through the labyrinth of Christopher's memory.

Ishiguro has never been one for verbal pyrotechnics, but the unruffled surface of this haunting novel only adds to its emotional power. When We Were Orphans is an extraordinary feat of sustained, perfectly controlled imagination, and in Christopher Banks the author has created one of his most memorable characters. --Simon Leake

From Publishers Weekly

Despite some contrived events and a tendency to rework the characterizations and themes of his previous books, Ishiguro's latest novel triumphs with the seductiveness of his prose and his ability to invigorate shadowy events with sinister implications. Like all of Ishiguro's protagonists, the narrator, here a recent Cambridge graduate named Christopher Banks, is an emotionally detached man who hides his real feelings from himself and who passively endures being trapped in nightmarish settings that give him "a grave foreboding." Like the hero of The Unconsoled, Christopher is bewildered by "the assumption shared by everyone... that it was somehow my sole responsibility to resolve the crisis." The crisis here is nothing less than averting WWII, which shares priority in Christopher's mind with the disappearance of his parents in Shanghai in the early 1900s, when he was nine years old. Christopher is sent to school in England, where he first formulates his dream of becoming a famous detective, an objective he achieves at a young age. Though he is convinced that his parents are still alive and that he can find them, he doesn't return to Shanghai until 1937, when he is in his mid 30s. It's obvious to the reader that Christopher deludes himself about many things, such as his conviction that when he "roots out evil," he is "cleansing the world of wickedness." This inclination toward grandiosity is a direct result of Christopher's sense of powerlessness as an orphan. While he is unaware of the connection, he is drawn to mercurial Sarah Hemmings, also orphaned in childhood. Ishiguro again conjures time and place with precise detail, evoking both the exotic atmosphere of prewar Shanghai, festering with the contrast between the arrogant residents of the International Settlement and the Chinese living in squalid slums and supplied with opium by foreign merchants, and class-conscious England, in which one's "connections" depend on family lineage. While the novel is mainly an introspective account of the protagonist's emotional dislocation, Ishiguro shows a new mastery of narrative tension, notably with Christopher's Kafkaesque experience during the Japanese invasion. In the end, Christopher understands that his vision of reality was distorted, and that his lifelong mission, "chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents," was the inescapable fate of one caught in the toils of historical turbulence. 75,000 first printing. (Sept.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf (September 12, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375410546
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375410543
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.3 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (274 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,164,678 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Elizabeth Hendry VINE VOICE on October 27, 2001
Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Paperback
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.
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