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British,  Crime fiction

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

When We Were Orphans is a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro published in 2000. Ishiguro rose to fame when he was published The Remains of the Day in 1989 and shocked everyone by writing a typical, classical English novel even though he is a Japanese immigrant and everyone expected him to deal with the migrant experience. Although I haven’t read The Remains of the Day I very much associate it with Howards End and the typical, upper middle-class and turn-of-the-century society.

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From Good Reads:

Christopher Banks, the protagonist of Kazuo Ishiguro’s fifth novel, When We Were Orphans, 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.

I am a huge fan of detective fiction so this seemed the perfect book to explore Ishiguro’s works. Of course, I also want to read The Remains of the Day, but I thought this one was much more appealing. So, I bought it exactly a year before I started reading it during May’s last week. I started the book knowing almost nothing about it except the following: 1930’s setting, English detective born in Shanghai and traumatized by the death of his parents when he was little. Everything was correct, but despite the description was very different from what I expected and I am sure the author knew what we readers were expecting and played with us. And it was great!

Christopher Banks is the main character and the only one who is fully developed. He is a well-known English detective who rose to fame and is now trying to solve the disappearance of his parents some thirty years ago. At first, I really sympathized with him and I even pitted him, but as the story went by, my dislike grew. Sometimes I thought he was teasing me as a reader, sometimes I thought he was out of his mind, and most the book I did not trust any of the stories he was telling. For me, this book was a The Great Gatsby meets Howards End. I do like unreliable narrators, I really do, just remember Alias Grace, but Banks was not likable as a character and even though I had not suspected he was teasing me, I would not have liked him either. Regarding characters, it did not help that there were only two women and both were portrayed negatively by the society they lived in basically because they were disruptive and fought for what they believed in.

Also, as if the unreliable narrator, the novel does not meet any of the expectations we tend to associate with detective fiction or this period. If we think about Sherlock Holmes or Mrs. Marple we evoke locked rooms, the English countryside and the English aristocracy. And I am sure Ishiguro knew that and created the complete opposite. If the focus of such novels is the resolution of the case, in When We Were Orphans we are constantly told about the cases Bank solves, but they only mentioned. We are never told how he does it or how difficult they were: he only uses them shows off. Also, he is constantly depicted in open spaces and half of the novel takes place in decadent Shanghai as far away from the English countryside as it gets. Plus, there is a harsh social criticism towards colonialism and the English use of the colonies to live the life they really want without any social restrictions. Obviously, drinks and opium play a key role and so does the role of the English empire in the opium trade to turn the native population into helpless addicts. Simply disgusting, but it was great to learn a little bit about it. This is one of the best things about literature, that we get to learn even though it’s not always about good things.

So, I would really recommend When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro to die-hard fans of detective fiction. The novel challenges structures, imagery and assumptions we have as readers of the genre. However, I must admit I did not care for the story as such, I adored realizing that Ishiguro was teasing me as a reader, but it was not an extraordinary story. Also, the fact I did not like the narrator at all did not help much. This is definitely a worthy reading and Ishiguro is a very prominent figure in English literature, so this could a good place to start. Now I am eager to read The Remains of the Day!

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6 Comments

    • Elena

      It is great for crime fiction fans, but I’m not sure it would appeal to people who don’t like them. I hope you get to read other Ishiguro’s works though, in terms of quality and density his books are remarkable!

    • Elena

      I really want to read The Remains of the Day, but since I love crime fiction so much, I wanted to give When We Were Orphans a try first.

  • Nish

    I had no idea this book came under the category of crime fiction. I like Ishiguro and now I’m curious to see how he does a crime novel.

    Btw, you should read Remains of the Day. It’s really very good.

    • Elena

      It is the typical, fast-paced crime novel. It is a combination of Ishiguro’s quality as a writer and a crime as the central element of the plot.

      And I know, I have to read The Remains of the Day and Atonement, two great postmodern classics I haven’t even bought… yet 😀

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