Monday, December 12, 2011

Review: When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

Reviewed by Connie

Published: 2000

It's about: Christopher Banks, the protagonist of Kazuo Ishiguro's fifth novel, has dedicated his life to detective work, but behind his successes lies one unsolved mystery: the disappearance of his parents when he was a small boy living in the International Settlement in Shanghai. Moving between England and China in the inter-war period, the book, encompassing the turbulence and political anxieties of the time and the crumbling certainties of a Britain deeply involved in the opium trade in the East, centres on Banks's idealistic need to make sense of the world through the small victories of detection and his need to understand finally what happened to his mother and father. (stolen from Goodreads)

I thought: Hmmmm. Like all of Kazuo Ishiguro's novels (that I have read), this one's a thinker. After really liking Remains of the Day and LOVING Never Let Me Go (read my review here), I suppose my expectations for my next Ishiguro may have been too high. I waited for my aha moment (again, see review for Never Let Me Go) after this book, but it didn't come. I fear this time, Ishiguro's subtlety may have been lost on me, but for the life of me, I can't pinpoint exactly why. Perhaps it's that I'm not as knowledgeable about the complexities of the China-Japan-Communism conflict pre-WWII, or perhaps this novel is simply not as well written as his others; I can't honestly say.

Though the overall meaning was lost on me, at the very least, it's an interesting character study. Ishiguro employs his signature style of a very unreliable narrator in this book. Christopher obviously has a very distorted view of himself and the world around him; he is determinedly self-important, convinced that he is a soldier on the front lines of the war in Asia, and that he alone can solve the conflict between China and Japan. He is condescending and complicated and rather interesting to read about, though I never developed any attachment to or fondness for him.

Verdict: In-between. This is not by any means Ishiguro's best book, but even without the big picture impact, his writing talent still shines through.

Reading Recommendations: If you have not read Ishiguro yet, I would not make this your first encounter. If you have read Remains of the Day and didn't like it, I feel fairly confident you will not like this either.

Warnings: None

Favorite excerpts:
"There were perhaps as many as twenty dancers, many of them 'Eurasians,' dressed skimpily in matching outfits with a bird motif. As the dancers proceeded with their floor show, the room seemed to lose all interest in the battle across the water, though the noises were still clearly audible behind the cheery music. It was as though for these people, one entertainment had finished and another had begun."

What I'm reading next: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri