When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro

When We Were Orphans, Kazuo Ishiguro - Ruth Livingstone reviews this bookThis book was published in 2000 but, the story is told in the first person and was ‘narrated’ during the 1930s. There is an authentic, old-fashioned feel to the writing. It is not a particularly easy read, being told in a non-linear fashion and with complexly constructed sentences. It took me some time to get into it.

The narrator – Christopher Banks – is brought to England as a small boy, after both his parents disappear. Initially, it is unclear whether he is, or isn’t, one of the orphans alluded to in the title. He adopts an orphan girl and, eventually, falls in love with a woman, another orphan. The story follows the narrator’s childhood in Shanghai, his new life on his return to Britain, his blossoming career as an English detective and his eventual return to Shanghai to resume the search for his parents. At the end, we discover what really did happen to his parents.

What I liked about the book:

The story is rich and full of characters and events. There is a messiness to the narration which is entirely in keeping with the messiness of real life. There are very few pivotal scenes – much of what happens is told in little asides, in flashback, or has to be assembled by the reader from fragments.

On a personal level, I could really identify with the young boy who is transplanted into a foreign environment and has to struggle to fit in. There is a strong feeling of being an alien, an observer, just marking time.

What I didn’t like about the book:

The story is told in a very convoluted manner. I found the jumping around in time – and the flashbacks within flashbacks – rather disorienting. There are so many characters and events, I had to keep flicking back in the text – as I found it hard to remember who was who. The book is divided into 7 parts, each being narrated at a different time. It would have been helpful to have an index so that I could look back more easily.

I did feel the final section, where the narrator returns to a war-torn Shanghai and enlists the help of the army in searching for his parents, rather unrealistic. Why did he wait so long before setting out to find his parents? And surely this experienced detective didn’t expect his parents to be in the same place after all these years? And would the army officers have really been so helpful during a period of intense fighting and great danger? I felt this was the weakest, and less authentic, part of the book – although the description of his desperate quest through a the bomb-blasted streets was very powerfully and particularly compelling.

The next book I want to read by Ishiguro is Remains of the Day.  I have seen the film but I expect the book will be a different experience …..

3 thoughts on “When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro”

  1. This is one of my favourite books. Thanks for reviewing it. (In fact my favourite book of all time is The Unconsoled by the same author).

    The way I interpret the final part of the book which is – as you say – rather unrealistic, especially in the way the soldiers seemingly drop everything in order to help the protagonist, is that he is in fact living in a fantasy world at that point and those events didn’t really happen in the way he describes. What actually happened in my view is that no-one was interested in helping him, least of all soldiers in the middle of a life-or-death situation. But this reality was too painful for him to acknowledge even to himself, so what he recounts to us is a fantasy version of what actually occurred. There are still a lot of truthful things mixed in with his account, which is why it isn’t completely unbelievable.

    Of course that is just my way of looking at it.

    Thanks, Andrew.

  2. Hi Andrew, thanks for stopping by and for your comments. Your interpretation of the ending is very helpful and I think I really must read this book again. It is a complex book and I might appreciate it more after a reread. I know the author is highly regarded and I think I failed to understand it – failed to ‘get it’. Best wishes, Ruth

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