Tuesday, February 12, 2013


When We Were Orphans, Kazuo Ishiguro, Alfred A Knopf, 2000, 336 pp

I have only read one other Ishiguro novel before: Never Let Me Go. I once saw him speak about that book at a reading and learned that he is rather obsessed with memory and how it is related to sense of self. On the experience of reading two of his six novels, I would call him difficult to read but emotionally deep.

The emotional depth is not in the writing which is almost without emotion. By some alchemy though, I felt or maybe even contributed emotion while reading. Was I trying to add it in because it is so submerged into the text or what? At this point I am not sure.

Christopher Banks was born to English parents in Shanghai a few years before the Japanese invasion, raised in its International Settlement, and his best friend was a Japanese boy. His parents disappear when he is about ten leaving him effectively orphaned, so he is sent back to an aunt in England. He grows up to become a famous detective.

Christopher is the most unreliable narrator I have met in fiction. He has almost no awareness of his effect on other people and pictures himself differently than anyone around him does. He is attracted to a woman who also displays a fractured sense of who she is, but he proceeds through life in complete denial about the attraction.

Eventually he returns to Shanghai in his thirties, having become convinced that his parents were kidnapped. Operating under the delusion that he can find them after all these years, he feels that he can also save China from some terrible fate. I think he is actually trying to save himself.

This is a most confusing tale written in segments that alternatively move the story forward while revealing the past. Each time the narrative returned to the present, some character or situation not previously mentioned would spring up, making me feel I had missed something.

Finally, despite numerous clues, I realized that Christopher's story was not the real story. By almost the last page I saw that Ishiguro had been ruminating all along as to how well we really know ourselves, how incorrectly we sometimes perceive the world and people around us, and how trauma and displacement can render a personality into fragments. I found all of this disturbing. I was left thinking that I got what he was trying to do but was not sure he pulled it off, but I'm not sure he didn't.

(When We Were Orphans is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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