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.


  1. I have not read Ishiguro but I would really like to. Based on your commentary I probably will start with this book. Thank you for the recommendations. I have read almost no modern historical fiction. Anachronisms must be very irritating.


  2. Your comments remind me of my reaction when I read this for a book group some years ago. Not the best of Ishiguro in which I would include those you recommend.


  3. Of Ishiguro's, I have read The Remains of the Day (and loved it), and Never Let Me Go (not impressed). But reading your review, I have a second thought of reading this book. I might switch to An Artist of the Floating World, instead.


  4. I’ve read Remains of the Day & if I hadn’t known the author was writing in the here & now I could have mistaken him for an early 20th Century writer. He really had the feel of something like Downton Abbey. I tried to read Never Let me Go but didn’t even finish the first chapter. I’ve heard that Artist of the Floating World is good.


  5. was this a translation? maybe that had something to do with it? i've never read any of his books; i mostly stick to non-modern books, but i might look into one of his during the next library trip… informative post, tx…


  6. Brian, it's a big reason I tend to stay away modern historical fiction, too. Once I tried to read one about Mozart's sister, and one of the characters said \”Ok.\” It was so weird…


  7. It's certainly surprising… in those other three books, the narrators all have excellent, nearly authentic voices. Maybe Christopher just needed to be 20 years older. ;D


  8. Ishiguro writes in English – I believe it's his first language; he pretty much grew up in the UK. The poor writing is honestly the biggest mystery of the book, since he is capable of masterful storytelling. (Although, I have read/tried a couple of duds – Nocturnes and The Buried Giant.)The Remains of the Day is almost universally loved; I think you would like Artist of the Floating World, too. Let me know how it goes!


  9. i forgot: i got about a third of the way into \”The Buried Giant\” and quit; it started out like it was going somewhere and then it seemed that destination was one i didn't want to accompany him to…


  10. Excellent review, Marion. I have not read anything by this author but I saw the movie, Remains of the Day. I will skip this novel, based on your review, but I think I should try some of his others, if they're worth it.


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