The lengthy nightmarish search for Banks’ parents amidst the rubble and violence of war–as the Japanese invaded China before WWII–was for me the least interesting part of the book since the sense of an ordinary reality in which one can place oneself was gone and was replaced by delirious scenes that were too fantastic to be compelling.
When We Were Orphans (Ishiguro): book review
I admired this carefully crafted novel in some ways but was ultimately unsatisfied by it. Per usual with Ishiguro, it is thoughtfully structured and narrated in the first person by an unreliable narrator whose inner reality we gradually discover as the story proceeds. Very briefly, the narrator is a man living in England whose parents disappeared in Shanghai China when he was a child living there. He assumes their disappearance related to the opium trade and as an adult becomes a detective in part to try to locate them. The language, as in other Ishiguro books, is precise and can, when he wishes, convey a scene very persuasively. The language is also formal in some sections of the book—certainly in the English scenes which create a period piece at times seeming to lack authenticity (though I have no expertise regarding the British upper class or private schools of the pre-WWII era). The storytelling is stripped of the metaphoric language that in many authors’ work gives texture to a narrative and provides moments of wonder for the reader. The narrator, Christopher Banks, dips in and out consensual reality concerning his identity and his parents’ extreme circumstances. At times, he seems quite delusional about his capabilities as a detective, his notions about what has become of his parents and ultimately—in a long, nightmarish search scene that is the book’s climax (akin to the chase scene in many movies)—he seems to have left consensual reality (whatever that is) altogether. Especially at the close of the book, the character is from time to time able to pull himself out of his twisted perceptions and take a more balanced look at himself, especially at his unwarranted confidence in his detective skills. I wondered if that capability actually weakened the book. It might have been more dramatic and engaging to let the reader make observations about Banks’ odd character and strange preoccupations while allowing the character to continue within his distorted world.
I did not find this book moving at a human level which is part of why I found it unsatisfying. For much of the narrative, the protagonist is so awkward and studied in his language and manners that it is hard to relate to him. He seems silly—ultimately ludicrous or insane—and I was not much concerned with his plight. The exception for me were the wonderful, compelling scenes of his relationship with a Japanese boy, Akira, a neighbor in the International Settlement in Shanghai where they both grew up. The Japanese boy expresses himself through pidgin English that is a bit hard to take, but overall the scenes were beautifully imagined and emotionally engaging. Other childhood scenes were moving as well, such as those of the orphaned child being taken to England aboard an ocean liner. At the opposite end of the spectrum are unpersuasive scenes in which Christopher Banks expects to find his long-lost parents in the midst of a village devastated by war. After searching for days, (under near impossible circumstances) to find the house where he believes his parents have been held captive for years, he actually spends quite a bit of time in conversation inside that very house before he bothers to look for them. When he finally begins to look for them, he does it in a mindless way, as if he might find them hiding under a pile of paper. Perhaps in constructing this scene in such nonsensical manner, Ishiguro means to convey some of the chaos in Banks’ mind and the increasing departure from reality, but even within the mind of an insane person, what feels urgent is urgently pursued. Another example of this failure to persuade the reader is the scene in which Banks finally locates his mother, now aged and insane herself. The narrator’s emotion and behavior is so unconvincing it is easy to put down the book halfway through this pivotal scene.
The book does convey how private each of our realities is and how much our deep desires and childhood trauma constructs the adult world in which we live. And it contains some beautiful, straightforward writing, especially when describing childhood affections and difficulties. Like other Ishiguro books, it intrigues the reader by gradually revealing the psychological deviations of the narrator, and it follows a carefully constructed and generally engaging plot line.