When We Were Orphans – A Study in "Meh"

It’s London in the 1930s, and Christopher Banks has what most people want: his dream job.  After a childhood of playing detective with his best friend Akira, Christopher grew up to be one of England’s leading private investigators, highly sought after both professionally and socially.  In spite of his success, he can’t forget the life he left behind him in Shanghai, nor the fact that his parents remain missing there and unaccounted for.  Christopher’s greatest hope is to go back to Shanghai to find them, even if it means returning to a war zone.  It turns out, however, that new relationships – including his love for a lonely socialite – make committing to his past the hardest case to solve.

This book could not have had a more promising premise.  I’ve raved about the nuances of Empire of the Sun (another story about an English boy in Shanghai), and I know Ishiguro can be incredibly subtle.  I also love a good mystery with a Sherlock Holmesian character.  Put all three together and what could possibly go wrong?  After hoping I’d be able to disagree with Ishiguro’s own comment, that it’s “not his best book,” ultimately I had to go with the consensus on When We Were Orphans (2000). 

While Ishiguro does not dwell on my #2 historical fiction pet peeve – in-your-face exposition – I’m afraid my #1 pet peeve is here, and that is anachronisms.

For example: Christopher’s voice.  There is something very post-war about Christopher’s voice, and I don’t mean word choice.  (The word choice is stereotypical but tolerable.)  Rather, the problem is his whole outlook and attitude.  Christopher is a strangely placid character, from his first run-ins with the irritating Sarah Hemmings to his later handling of his personal investigation.  This serenity does not translate to cool-headedness, however; he behaves irrationally when push comes to shove, even in the middle of a battlefield.  Additionally, his sense of morality has a modern tone to it, which seems unlikely coming from someone who was close to his strongly religious mother.  None of this makes sense, and I feel like I’m watching some 21st-century time traveler going through the motions of being Christopher, as opposed to an actual person with character integrity.

As for Sarah – well, she epitomizes the cringe-worthy female protagonist.  I’ll say no more.

The plot starts out extremely well.  We get flashbacks of Christopher’s youth, most importantly of his friendship with Akira – a boy torn between his Japanese culture and his life in International Shanghai.  We also get a glimpse of Christopher’s mother, a fierce yet kind Victorian woman with strong Christian values.  (It’s easy to trace the parallel between Christopher’s altruistic career choices and his mother’s campaign against the opium trade.  He’s simply carrying on the work she started, but in a different sphere.)  Furthermore, we find half of his clues are just memories – foggy, unreliable memories.  This is a fantastic conflict because it’s one we all encounter at some point.

This solid beginning is gradually replaced with a let-down, first by Christopher becoming aggravating, then finally by the resolution to the core mystery.  I won’t divulge spoilers, but the “solution” is horribly sensational and not particularly believable.  It reads like the first draft, or the first idea out of a brainstorming session…  I felt like Ishiguro could have done much better if he’d given it more time, and I’m puzzled that his editor approved it.

Is there anyone I would recommend this to?  Unfortunately, no.  There’s some morally questionable elements which I’ve alluded to, and if that didn’t bother you, the characterization and plot twists are so unlikely, you won’t be able to suspend enough disbelief.  1.5 stars is generous.  If you’re new to Ishiguro’s work, start with The Remains of the Day, An Artist of the Floating World, or A Pale View of Hills instead.