When We Were Orphans

Summary from Goodreads:

England, 1930s. Christopher Banks has become the country’s most celebrated detective, his cases the talk of London society. Yet one unsolved crime has always haunted him; the mysterious disappearance of his parents, in Old Shanghai, when he was a small boy. Now, as the world lurches towards total war, Banks realises the time has come for him to return to the city of his childhood and at last solve the mystery – that only by his doing so will civilisation be saved from the approaching catastrophe.

Moving between London and Shanghai of the inter-war years, When We Were Orphans is a story of memory, intrigue and the need to return; of a childhood vision of the world surviving deep into adulthood, indelibly shaping and distorting a person’s life.

I read When We Were Orphans last month as a scheduled buddy read with my mommy-friends from the book club. The only other Ishiguro I have read before this book was Never Let Me Go which, to this day, remains as one of my most favorite novels of all time. His other popular book, The Remains of the Day, has been on my to-read list for quite sometime and I have bumped it up to the top of the pile after I finished When We Were Orphans.

It was the prose that really piqued my interest when I started reading When We Were Orphans. There was something about the narrative that quickly pulled me in and drew me to quickly flip the pages. It’s been said that Ishiguro’s recurring theme in his works is memory and this is very evident in this book. Christopher Banks, the narrator, is on a quest to solve the mysterious disappearance of his parents many years ago. Since the incident happened when he was only a small boy in Shanghai, he has to rely on his memories before, during, and after the disappearance in order to piece together whatever information he has to help him crack the case.

The danger with memories, however, is that it is unreliable. Christopher himself, already a renowned detective, acknowledges that what seems to be his recollection of a particular incident may not have happened at all or may have been confused with some other incident. And isn’t it true that when we remember the past, sometimes what we can vividly recall is not the particular situation but the specific feelings that we had?

Another thing that really intrigued me with this book is that although the tone is as typical a detective story like Sherlock Holmes should be — clipped and curt — the plot did not focus too much on the solving of the crime but on Christopher’s character development and personal experiences. What I read instead was more on Christopher’s emotions and  some misadventures and not on the clues and action leading to the solving of the mystery. Lest I am misunderstood — I am not complaining. I am actually pleased with how Ishiguro maintained the suspense without necessarily sacrificing literary excellence.

I loved how the storyline was constructed although at the start I had difficulties in placing myself into the timeline but I eventually got the hang of it. I kept reminding myslef that I am reading through Christopher’s narrative told according to his memories and so I must deal with distracted thoughts and digressions. Also, I enjoyed some funny bits in the story and there were frustrating ones, too. One instance, and the very frustrating scene that stuck to me, was the unreasonable insistence of Christopher to get into the middle of the war, literally in the line of fire, to get into the house he believed to hold his parents. What drove Christopher, a supposedly rational and calculated man considering his profession, to throw caution into the wind and believe the things he wanted to believe even though there were signs that show otherwise?

Despite this, and although I did not develop a fond attachment to Christopher Banks, I still rooted for him. I wanted him to find his parents or closure, at the very least. And I think he got that at the end.

I didn’t expect to really love When We Were Orphans. The reviews I read were lukewarm and they tended to compare this much earlier work from Ishiguro’s more recent ones. But I loved it, and surprisingly so. Maybe because I only had one book to compare it to and which, to my mind, is also at par with this one.

When We Were Orphans is a very very engaging read. I enjoyed every page. I shed some tears when confronted of the realities of war and of how war makes orphans of us.


My Rating: 5/5 stars.

My copy: Paperback, published by Faber and Faber (2000), bought from Booksale

Reading buddies: Monique and Louize

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